upper waypoint

'Political Football:' Future Uncertain for Program Reuniting Migrant Families

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A Latino woman leans against a fence.
Norma Lima in Menlo Park on April 28, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

In her driveway in East Palo Alto, Norma Lima watched her two boys zip around on their scooters in the spring sunshine. After years of separation from her younger son, it gave her a thrill to see Diego, 6, playing with his 10-year-old brother José.

Lima used to be a police officer in her native El Salvador. But in 2019, facing death threats from an organized criminal gang, she fled and sought asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Knowing she couldn’t manage the dangerous journey from El Salvador to the U.S. with two young children, she took only José with her. She left Diego, still in diapers, with his grandmother, not knowing how they’d ever reunite.

Then, last fall, Diego was approved to come join her in the U.S. with refugee status under something called the Central American Minors program (CAM). In September, he boarded a plane in San Salvador, and Lima met him at San Francisco International Airport with their first hug in four years.

“It’s so immense,” Lima said. “I’ll be forever grateful.”

At a time when thousands of unaccompanied children are showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border every month, the Biden administration has been trying to build an alternative pathway through CAM. But just as the program, which started under President Barack Obama, has gotten reestablished, supporters and critics alike question whether it will survive this year’s presidential election.

What is the Central American Minors program?

The CAM program was created in 2014 during the Obama administration when the number of children traveling alone into the U.S. first spiked. A then-record 68,000 unaccompanied kids arrived at the border that year, most from the tumultuous countries of Central America’s “Northern Triangle.”

The idea was to let parents who were already lawfully in the U.S. bring the children they had left behind in Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador through a safe, legal pathway, as well as certain adult siblings and caretakers with them. This, the administration hoped, would deter desperate parents from putting their kids into the hands of smugglers.

a line of kids outside in the desert
Immigrant children await transport from the U.S.-Mexico border in December 2023. (John Moore/Getty Images)

However, the history of the program has been rocky.

Over the final two years of the Obama administration, more than 6,000 CAM applications were approved. However, soon after Donald Trump became president, he ended the program as part of a broad crackdown on immigration.

Then, in 2021, President Joe Biden brought it back, saying CAM “reflects our values as a nation” by protecting vulnerable children. It was also part of a comprehensive approach to managing the current surge of migration in the Americas.

It’s unclear how many kids have come through CAM since the program restarted because the government has not been forthcoming with data. But the number must be tiny when compared to the 137,000 unaccompanied minors encountered at the border last year.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said more than 800 people have come into the U.S. as refugees under CAM since 2021. In addition, those who don’t qualify for refugee status (which offers legal permanent residence and eventual citizenship) are considered for a temporary status called humanitarian parole. Advocates estimate that roughly twice as many people are approved for parole as refugee status. However, the agency that handles parole, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, declined KQED’s request for data on the program.

The lucky and the not-so-lucky

As Diego and José chased each other around the driveway, Lima stood on her porch and spoke in a hushed voice about the death threats that led her to leave her toddler behind in El Salvador.

Her city, Santa Ana, was dominated by gangs, and her work as a police officer made her a target. After a warning from colleagues, she said, she began moving where she slept — at the police station, at her parents’ home — but gang members tracked her down and threatened her directly.

Finally, she said, she turned in her badge and her uniform, scraped together money for a smuggler, and prepared for a risky journey to reach her sister in California.

“I knew if I had to run, my older boy could run with me. But I couldn’t carry one in my arms and hold the other by the hand,” she said. “It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made.”

Lima got to the U.S. border with José, passed an initial asylum screening and moved in with her sister in East Palo Alto. After six months, she qualified for a work permit and began delivering pizzas, then waitressing, she said.

José was thriving in school and learning English, Lima said, but without Diego, she fell into a depression. Then, a friend showed her a YouTube video about the Central American Minors program. She jotted down the phone number and called the next morning. She applied in November of 2022, and 10 months later, she met Diego at the airport.

“It was incredibly fast,” she said. “I still can’t believe it.”

Other parents have not been so lucky.

Elda Coreas, a construction worker in Virginia, applied to the CAM program in 2016 to bring her son from El Salvador. She said she had left him with family as a little boy years earlier.

Coreas’s son, Ricardo, was approved for parole. She paid for his plane ticket, and he packed his bag, she said. Then, in 2017, President Trump abruptly shut the program down. An official called and told her Ricardo could not come.

“I felt as if the sky had fallen,” Coreas said. “I didn’t know how to tell him.”

Then, the International Refugee Assistance Program sued the Trump administration on behalf of families like hers. And in 2019, a judge ordered the government to admit the more than 2,800 people, including Ricardo, who had already been approved when CAM was terminated.

Since then, 1,769 of them have arrived in the U.S., and just 107 cases remain pending, though hundreds of others have simply been closed, according to a court-ordered update last month (PDF).

Eventually, Coreas’s case was reopened. Though Ricardo is now an adult with a degree in computer engineering, he was still eligible to join her, and he again went through interviews, background checks and a physical exam. Coreas said last November officials told her Ricardo was qualified and that they would notify him of his travel date. But she said they’ve heard nothing since.

“So many years of waiting,” she said. “They give you hope, then they take it away. They’re treating us as if we were toys.”

Tatiana Méndez with the International Rescue Committee, which is assisting Coreas with her case, said it’s unclear what’s causing the delay.


‘A political football’

Advocates said the relaunch of the CAM program has been slowed by the fact that refugee resettlement agencies, which assist parents in filing applications, are only now rebuilding after losing funding and staff when Trump drastically cut the U.S. refugee program.

The other issue, after so much political back-and-forth, has simply been getting the word out that the program exists — and convincing parents that applying is worth their trouble.

“Frankly, a lot of folks who are now eligible may not even be aware that the program exists,” said Michelle Villegas, an attorney with Kids in Need of Defense.

Villegas’ organization received a grant from the U.S. State Department to raise awareness of CAM through outreach to legal service providers, schools, clinics and churches in the U.S. and in Central America.

Part of the challenge she said she faces is rebuilding trust with those who do know about CAM because the program has had so many stops and starts. She said word travels about cases like Coreas’.

“Unfortunately, it’s the reality that many immigration policies are political footballs,” Villegas said. “And CAM is one of these programs that is affected by the policies of different administrations.”

Villegas and other supporters believe that, given time and consistency, the CAM program could grow to be a humane and effective tool for making a dent in illegal border crossings. However, political football is still being tossed about, and what will happen in the future is unclear.

Confronted with a global migration crisis and record numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, Biden has used parole programs liberally. However, parole — including through CAM — has become increasingly controversial.

In a campaign video, Trump said that, if elected, he would “stop the outrageous abuse of parole authority.” His press secretary wouldn’t say whether Trump would terminate CAM a second time, but advocates on both the right and the left believe he would.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., which advocates for reducing immigration, expects Trump would end CAM because, he said, its parole provisions overstep presidential power.

“Parole is supposed to be a narrow emergency power. And this administration, in particular, has used it as a kind of blank check,” he said. “The CAM program, regardless of whom it benefits, is illegitimate in itself. Now, Congress could create a program like that if they wanted to, but they didn’t.”

At the same time, the CAM program is also being challenged in a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Texas and other Republican-led states (PDF). Lawyers for parents who’ve intervened in the suit have asked the federal judge to dismiss the case (PDF), saying the states don’t have standing to challenge the program. The judge heard that argument in January and could rule at any time.

Hannah Flamm, a policy counsel with the International Refugee Assistance Program, said the migrant journey across Mexico remains extremely dangerous, so lawful pathways for kids are crucial.

“For many of these families, there is no alternative,” she said. “So maintaining and improving the Central American Minors program is the only way that the United States can offer a meaningful alternative to the dangerous journey that many children undertake… due to their circumstances.”

woman pushes a kid in a swing
Norma Lima and her son Diego, 6, in Menlo Park. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A safe alternative

Norma Lima didn’t want to risk her little boy’s life with a smuggler, yet the separation was unbearable. So, she has nothing but gratitude that Diego could come to her safely through CAM. Getting reacquainted after four years apart took a little time — she said at first, she didn’t even know what foods her son liked.

But now she can see a future for her children to grow up without fear. She recently won her asylum case, which means they are all on a path to U.S. citizenship.

“I’m proud they can grow up here,” she said. “And I’m committed to raising them to respect authority and the values of this country that has opened its doors and helped us so much.”

And Lima said bedtime is the time when her heart is fullest because now she can kiss both of her boys goodnight.


lower waypoint
next waypoint