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Biden Promises Refugee Status to Central Americans Under 21

Biden Promises Refugee Status to Central Americans Under 21

On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden promised that the White House would allow an expansion of the United States’ refugee program to offer refugee status to children and young adults from Central America. He made the announcement in a speech at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. This announcement comes on the heels of President Obama’s vow to pass additional sweeping immigration reforms by executive order before the end of the year, a move strongly opposed by Republicans in Congress

Previous U.S. immigration policy included a program that allowed up to 4,000 people a year from Cuba and Columbia to apply for refugee status. The new policy, as described by Biden, would expand that program to people under age 21 from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who already have a parent in the U.S. legally, to allow them to come and join their parents. 

“It provides those seeking asylum a ‘right way’ to come to our country, as opposed to crossing the border illegally,” said Biden about the new policy. “The program will provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that some children make — and some children don’t ever arrive, don’t ever make.”

The program would begin in December, and according to a statement by the State Department, applications would be initiated in the U.S. by the parent who was legally here. If a second parent still remained with the child in the home country and was legally married to the parent in the U.S., the second parent could also be added to the application. 

The State Department’s statement also said that they “anticipated that a relatively small number of children from Central America will be admitted to the United States as refugees in [Fiscal Year] 2015.” Because the program is based on an expansion of a refugee program for immigrants from Columbia and Cuba, and the number of refugees from Cuba had been declining in recent years, this would allow “some flexibility” in the program “to accommodate a higher than anticipated number from Latin America,” but they did not clarify how high that number might be.

Immigration activists criticized the announcement as inadequate to address the needs of the approximately 68,000 unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed the border this year, many of whom were originally from Central America, according to a report by Bloomberg. Austin immigration attorney Daniel Kowalski told Bloomberg that this was a “small gesture,” designed to allow President Obama to “mak[e] it seem as if he’s a little bit compassionate but if he really wanted to show them compassion he wouldn’t lock them up the first place.” Likewise, Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, said that this program will not help most of the kids who are seeking help. “Some of the most vulnerable kids have parents who don’t have legal status in the U.S.,” said Podkul. “It’s a good first step but it’s not going to be panacea for this problem.”

Republicans were also quick to criticize Biden’s announcement. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, emailed a statement that the new program was nothing more than a “government-sanctioned border surge.” With Republicans set to retake control of the Senate and increase their majority of the House in January, many have voiced loud opposition to Obama’s plan to grant amnesty to tens of thousands of illegal immigrants during the last two months of the outgoing Congress’ lame duck session. 

Both of Texas’ Senators have been very active in opposing Obama’s use of executive action to enact immigration reforms. Senator John Cornyn issued a warning to Obama that the voters had sent a strong message on Election Day, so he hoped that Obama would “reverse course and work with us — not around us — to secure the border and achieve real reforms to our immigration system,” and Senator Ted Cruz tweeted on Friday that if Obama “proceeds with his planned unconstitutional amnesty, it would be defiant of voters.” Governor-Elect Greg Abbott has also vowed that the State of Texas is prepared to sue the Obama administration over the issue.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.

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