An unprecedented number of unaccompanied migrant children have been placed with sponsors in states across the country this year, despite some Republican governors’ attempts to block them. Now, thousands more could arrive under a new federal program aimed at providing a path for children left behind in Central America to join immigrant parents who are legally living in the United States.
More than 130,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the U.S. southern border illegally from Oct. 1, 2020, through the end of August, a more than 300% increase compared with the previous fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
To encourage a safe, legal alternative to the dangerous journey that some children are currently taking to reach the United States, the Biden administration revived the Obama-era Central American Minors program. It allows certain parents living legally in the U.S. to request that their children under 21 in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras be interviewed in their home countries for resettlement.
But critics argue the program is a backdoor approach to immigration that does not resolve the ongoing border crisis. They say it puts added pressure on an already overburdened refugee resettlement program and on schools and health care in states where these unaccompanied minors are being resettled.
A handful of states have been more affected by the influx. At least 70% of the 75,165 unaccompanied minors processed between October 2020 and August by the Office of Refugee Resettlement were placed with sponsors in 10 states. Texas had the most placements, followed by Florida, California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
Many localities and public schools have been caught off guard by these arrivals, said senior researcher Nayla Rush of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for tighter restrictions on immigration.
“If somebody was going to send people to my house, I will need some time to prepare,” Rush said. “I'm not saying that you need to say ‘no’ or you need to say ‘yes,’ but I'm saying that I think it is the minimum that you tell localities.”
This spring, the Biden administration was forced to open dozens of emergency intake centers across the country and to reach out to state foster care providers for help housing unaccompanied children during the initial influx. In April, Republican governors in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming said they would try to block the federal government from placing unaccompanied minors in their states.
Governors in these states did not return multiple requests for comment on the reinstated Central American Minors program.
Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who had welcomed refugees in the past, blamed a lack of transparency by President Joe Biden's administration for his denial in May of unaccompanied minors to the state, according to a June report in the Tennessean.
"States do not know when these unaccompanied minors are being brought into the states, and that’s the biggest challenge for us," the paper quoted Lee as saying. "The issue is different because of the lack of accountability, the lack of understanding about where these children are coming from and where they're going."
In June, after the Biden administration first announced it was reviving the Central American Minors program, U.S. Rep. Bob Good, a Republican of Virginia, introduced a bill that would block any federal funds from being used to carry it out. The House bill, which remains in committee, has 23 Republican co-sponsors.
“The Biden Administration continues to implement polices to incentivize illegal immigration. Its new government program will now reward illegal aliens with a plane ticket for other family members,” wrote Good in a news release. “My legislation will ensure that no American taxpayers are used to foot the bill for a taxi service for aliens entering the country illegally.”
But immigration advocates say the program provides a legal pathway for children to be safely reunited with their parents.
The first time Johana Garcia hugged her mother was on Jan. 31, 2017, at the Houston airport after arriving as a grantee under the Central American Minors program. She was 16 years old.
“I’d only seen her in photos,” Garcia said in Spanish in an interview with Stateline. “We both cried a lot.”
Her mother left for the U.S. in 2001 shortly before a catastrophic 7.6 magnitude earthquake in El Salvador and has been here ever since under Temporary Protective Status. Garcia was raised by her grandmother, but at age 14 she began being harassed by gang members in her neighborhood.
“If I’d stayed or been denied I would not have been able to leave my house because it wasn’t safe for me to go out,” Garcia said. “My dreams of going to school, getting a degree and one day owning my own business would have ended.”
Garcia, now 21, is a senior at Lone Star College working toward a degree in business administration.
The Central American Minors program, active from 2014 until 2017, when the Trump administration ended it, requires parents to be legally living in the United States. The parent can be a permanent resident, or under a temporary or pending legal status.
Applicants with a biological relationship to the child must undergo a DNA test to prove the connection. Both biological and adoptive parents must provide documentation that they are the legal guardian. The child must have a credible fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
The application is free, but parents must contact a resettlement support center in their state to apply. Refugee resettlement organizations, including the Y, Catholic Charities USA and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, help parents apply, coordinate interviews and arrange travel if the child is approved.
Central American minors who are found ineligible for refugee status but are found at risk of harm are automatically considered for parole into the United States. Parole allows individuals to stay temporarily in the U.S. and apply for work authorization if they are over 16 years old. About 1% of people who applied for the Central American Minors program were denied both refugee and parole, according to court documents.
Garcia received a two-year permit to live and work in the U.S. as a parolee under the program, but it expired in 2019. For the past two years, she’s been in limbo waiting for the program to come back so she can renew her legal status.
Dario Lipovac, senior program director of YMCA International Services in Houston, said his organization has been receiving calls from newly interested parents as well as ones who were left pending when former President Donald Trump ended the program shortly after taking office.
At least 1,335 children arrived in the United States under the program, while some 2,700 others who were approved were left in their home countries because the program ended. In March, the Biden administration began processing some of the outstanding applications.
Lipovac said his office successfully processed about 40 applications under the previous version of the program. He said many applicants said their child in Central America was being extorted by gangs who targeted them because they knew their parents were in the U.S.
“This program enables you to do things the right way without exposing your child to the trip through Central America or Mexico which is not safe,” Lipovac said, encouraging parents to apply. “We’re expecting many more people to apply this time and hope the process is faster.”