The Departments of State and Homeland Security announced recently that the Central American Minors (CAM) Program is being expanded, which will allow more children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to safely reunite with parents and guardians already living in the United States.
The expansion makes children eligible for CAM if their parent or guardian has a pending T visa petition, based on surviving human trafficking. Previously, only parents lawfully in the United States and those with pending asylum and U visa petitions could apply. It also updates the eligibility date for the parent or guardian’s underlying asylum, U visa, or T visa petition to applications filed on or before April 11, 2023.
Among other changes, certain children who had been interviewed before the Trump administration terminated CAM but had not received a final determination will now be eligible to apply for parole.
The CAM program was created in 2014 under the Obama administration, as larger numbers of Central American children began entering the United States unaccompanied. Many of the children were ultimately released from Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters to parents already living here.
The children often had their own asylum claims based on suffering child abuse, sexual abuse, or gang violence in their home countries, but they could not apply for protection until reaching the United States. Other children qualified as derivatives on their parents’ pending applications for relief. But backlogs in processing meant that the applications would not be decided for years.
The CAM program allows certain parents and legal guardians in the United States to request refugee resettlement interviews for their children in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Children denied refugee status can be considered for parole into the U.S. The program strives to provide a safer alternative for Central American children fleeing persecution by allowing them to seek protection from their home country.
The Trump administration terminated CAM in 2017, leaving more than 2,7000 children who had already been conditionally approved without a path to reuniting with their families in the U.S.
In 2021, the Biden administration reopened and expanded the CAM program. The government began reopening CAM cases that had been closed by the Trump administration. Eligibility was also expanded to include legal guardians and those with pending asylum and U visa applications.
The CAM program has the potential to reduce the number of unaccompanied children making the dangerous journey to the United States. But in practice, the program has yet to reach its full potential. Only around 3,000 children arrived in the United States through CAM before the Trump administration terminated the program.
The Biden administration has not released data on the number of children who have arrived in the U.S. since CAM reopened. However, a recent study by Refugees International shows that children continue to struggle to meet the requirements for CAM and that few Guatemalan children have been able to benefit. More Guatemalan families became eligible for CAM under the 2021 expansion, but word has spread slowly in Guatemala. The administration should conduct in-country outreach in Central America to ensure that eligible families learn about CAM.
In addition to the barriers faced by children from Honduras and El Salvador—like long processing times and the dangers of traveling to capital cities for CAM interviews—Guatemala requires agreement from both parents before a child can be issued a passport. Requiring a passport harms children who could most benefit from the program, like those who are being abused by a parent in their home country.
Further expanding CAM is a positive step toward reuniting vulnerable children with their parents and guardians in the United States. But the Biden administration must ensure all children who are eligible for CAM can benefit. Without further improvements to the program, many children will be faced with the impossible choice of either staying in a country where their life is in danger or making the perilous journey to the U.S. to find their parents on their own.