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Few Guatemalan children are reunited with parents through U.S. program, report finds

The Central American Minors program allows parents in the U.S. legally to request refugee status for their children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Image: Migrant children, holding center
 Almost half of all unaccompanied children who crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. last year were from Guatemala.Eric Gay / AP file

Few, if any, Guatemalan children have made it to the U.S. under an expanded program to reunite children with their parents in the U.S., according to a report published Wednesday by the nonprofit organization Refugees International.

President Joe Biden restarted the Central American Minors program, known as CAM, in March 2021. It was launched by the Obama administration in 2014 and terminated by the Trump administration in 2018.

The program originally allowed parents who were in the U.S. legally through parole or Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to apply and request refugee status for their children and certain children's family members in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

But the U.S. has never granted TPS to people from Guatemala; it has granted it to people from El Salvador and Honduras after natural disasters in those countries. During the Obama administration, only 2% of applicants to the CAM program were Guatemalan.

In September 2021, the Biden administration expanded the pool of eligible applicants to include parents who have applied for asylum or U visas, usually given to victims of crimes.

The second phase was supposed to open the door for more Guatemalan children, said Yael Schacher, the director of the Americas and Europe at Refugees International, which advocates for refugee rights and protections.

Yet a report by the nonprofit advocacy group found few Guatemalan children have arrived under the application expansion.

In stark contrast, almost half of all unaccompanied children who crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. last year were from Guatemala, including children trying to reunite with their parents in the U.S.

“We wanted to focus on Guatemalans just because this is really the first time they are eligible,” said Rachel Schmidtke, the senior advocate for Latin America at Refugees International. “The U.S. government is kind of building up a bit more of the infrastructure to process CAM cases in Guatemala, as well as outreach to Guatemalan families in the U.S.”

Statistics on Phase 2 of the program are not publicly available. Refugees International relied on information from U.S. government officials, resettlement agencies that handle applications, local non-governmental organizations and families.

Since the start of Phase 2, the program has received about 1,000 applications, according to the report. Around 25% of the applicants were from Guatemalan parents; the majority were from Hondurans and Salvadorans combined.

Schacher said it's "a tiny number for all three nationalities — 250 applications for Guatemalans in the last year and a half," adding, "That’s very little.”

Boosting outreach and resources

A lack of outreach to Guatemalan parents who are eligible to apply keeps the application numbers low, according to the report.

In addition, difficulty getting children in Guatemala to CAM interviews to support their application claims means few are granted refugee status.

The report also found that those granted parole have a difficult time getting passports to leave the country. Under Guatemalan law, both parents have to give consent for a passport.

“This requirement disproportionately negatively affects kids who are under 18 and women who have fled domestic violence situations, because a lot of times the father is either absent from the picture or is actually the aggressor,” Schmidtke said. “The passport requirement is definitely something that should be changed in order to ease the process and make more people available for the CAM program.”

In an emailed statement, a State Department spokesperson said that since the CAM program restarted in March 2021, "the United States has strived to provide a safe, legal alternative to irregular migration for minors from the region."

The statement went on to say, "We continue to evaluate the program to make improvements that will better serve the intended beneficiaries, such as the fall 2022 award to new NGO partners dedicated to streamlining application intake and expanding outreach efforts."

The report recommended federal agencies invest more resources in the CAM program, including more collaboration with officials in Guatemala and Mexico and more outreach to Guatemalan families.

It also recommended that the federal government make information about the program more easily available and that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have an online “check case status” feature so families can check the progress of their cases.