WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is weighing giving refugee status to young people from Honduras as part of a plan to slow the influx of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, White House officials said Thursday.
The plan would involve screening youths in Honduras, one of the world's most violent nations, to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. Similar in-country screening programs were set up in East Asia after the Vietnam War and in Haiti in the 1990s.
The officials cautioned that no final decision on the matter had been made and said the proposal was among a range of ideas the White House was considering. The officials briefed reporters ahead of President Barack Obama's meeting Friday with Central American leaders on the condition they not be identified by name.
The United Nations has been pushing the U.S. to treat children arriving at the southern border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as refugees displaced by armed conflict. The trio of nations has become one of the most violent regions in the world in recent years, with swathes of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs who rob, rape and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.
Since last fall, the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the number of migrants from these three countries arriving at the southern border, particularly children traveling without any adult guardian.
Since Oct. 1, more than 16,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras have been caught crossing the Mexican border illegally. At the same time, more than 30,300 Hondurans traveling as families have also been arrested.
Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that helps find attorneys for unaccompanied children in the U.S. immigration system, told CBS News last month that screening asylum applications in Central American countries may be a way to stop so many from making the dangerous trek north.
The U.S. has resisted calling the situation a refugee crisis, though Obama and top officials have called it a "humanitarian crisis." Central American leaders similarly urged the administration to consider the humanitarian aspect as they met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday.
It is unclear what would happen to children and families who have already made the dangerous trek to the United States if the refugee plan is implemented. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has repeatedly said that there is no free pass for immigrants who come to the United States illegally and that those who are caught crossing the border would be sent home.
The administration would also have to outline what the refugee proposal would mean for Honduran immigrants already in the United States. In 1999, the U.S. government granted Temporary Protective Status to Hondurans living in the country illegally in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. The status has been renewed several times since then, and according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services about 60,000 Honduran living in the United States have received the protective status.
Immigrants from El Salvador received the protection in 2001 and USCIS says about 202,000 Salvadorans remain the U.S. under TPS.
Newly arriving immigrants from countries granted TPS are not eligible for the protection from deportation. TPS is used from time to time by the government to stop deportations to specific countries when authorities deem it is unsafe to return immigrants.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has suggested that the U.S. consider a TPS program for people from his country, since they have been previously set up for Hondurans and Guatemalans.
The New York Times first reported that the White House was considering the refugee program for young people in Honduras.