By Ilissa Mira
On September 30, 2014, President Obama announced a plan to allow certain children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to apply for refugee status within their own countries. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, over 68,500 unaccompanied children fled violence in Central America, undertaking a long and dangerous journey to the United States. As a response, in-country processing is aimed at stemming the surge of unaccompanied children by offering a safer alternative to traveling north alone.
Under U.S. immigration law, the term “refugee” generally refers to an individual outside their own country, who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution on account of their membership in a protected class. However, the president has the authority to designate countries whose nationals may be processed for refugee status within their home countries. Establishing in-country processing in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador would allow certain lawfully present relatives in the United States to request refugee resettlement for children in these three countries. According to White House officials, this process would provide a legal way for children to join relatives in the United States without making the arduous trip across Central America and Mexico. A decrease in unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S. would reduce the burden on the immigration court system and the need for detention facilities.
Despite the humanitarian justification, some immigration advocates are concerned about the program’s effectiveness. The plan would require children in immediate danger to remain in unsafe circumstances while awaiting processing in their home countries. It could also serve as a rationale for denying valid claims from those with no choice but to leave home.
The program was outlined in a memorandum to the State Department capping worldwide refugee admissions to 75,000 for FY 2015. Four thousand of those admissions will be allocated to Latin America and the Caribbean, lowered from 5,000 admissions allotted to the region in FY 2014. An additional 2,000 may be added to any regional ceilings where the need arises. In-country processing will also be available to persons in regions such as Eurasia and the Baltics, as well as Cuba and Iraq.