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Biden reopens program that allows Central American children to come to the U.S. legally

The U.S. government this week will start accepting new applications for an Obama-era immigration policy that allows some U.S.-based parents to bring their children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to the country legally, the Biden administration announced Monday.

The acceptance of new petitions, set to begin Tuesday, will mark the final stage of the Biden administration's revival of the Central American Minors (CAM) initiative, which U.S. officials have portrayed as a safe and legal alternative to the often dangerous trek migrant children undertake to reach the southern border. 

"We are firmly committed to welcoming people to the United States with humanity and respect, and reuniting families," the departments of State and Homeland Security said in a joint statement. "We are delivering on our promise to promote safe, orderly, and humane migration from Central America through this expansion of legal pathways to seek humanitarian protection in the United States."

During the first stage of the revival of this program, which was terminated by the Trump administration in 2017, the U.S. identified over 3,000 pending cases that had been closed because of the termination, administration officials said on Monday. Over 1,400 cases have been reopened but none of the children have arrived in the U.S. so far, officials added.

"We are getting very close to movement on that as well," one administration official said, referring to U.S. arrivals. 

"Tens of thousands" of parents residing in the U.S. could benefit from the program's full reinstatement, the administration officials noted.

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Honduran immigrant Nani, 10, is greeted by her extended family upon her flight's arrival on April 23, 2021 to Louisville, Kentucky. The unaccompanied minor had been released that day from U.S. Health and Human Services custody after spending nearly eight weeks in shelters Indiana. Getty Images

In June, the Biden administration expanded eligibility for the CAM program, allowing parents to petition for their children if they have pending applications for asylum or U visas, which are reserved for victims of serious crimes. Green card holders, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries and others with temporary legal status in the U.S. can also apply.

U.S.-based refugee resettlement agencies and their local affiliates — which are currently preparing to resettle tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees — received training in August to help parents apply for the CAM program, the Biden administration said.

The adjudication process should take between 12 and 14 months, administration officials said.

Created in 2014 after a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied children entering U.S. border custody, the CAM policy was designed to help minors fleeing violence in Central America who have family in the U.S..

After their U.S.-based parents submit applications on their behalf, children are interviewed in their home countries to determine whether they qualify for refugee resettlement based on persecution they may have suffered. If they are denied refugee status, the children may still be granted humanitarian parole, which allows them to enter the U.S. legally.

Unlike refugee status, parole does not place immigrants on a pathway to permanent U.S. status. Before the Trump administration dismantled CAM, 2,600 applicants were resettled as refugees, while another 2,200 were granted parole to enter the U.S., according to government figures.

In July, the last month with available statistics, U.S. officials along the southern border took more than 18,900 unaccompanied children into custody, a record high. Roughly 83% of those children hailed from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to government data.

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