U.N. to Help U.S. Screen Central American Migrants

Media: New York Times


Date: 12 January 2016

The Obama administration is turning to the United Nations to help screen migrants fleeing violence in Central America, senior administration officials said Tuesday, and to help set up processing centers in several Latin American countries in the hopes of stemming a flood of families crossing the southern border illegally.

Designed to head off migrants from three violence-torn countries in the region before they start traveling to the United States, the new refugee resettlement program will be announced by Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday in Washington. Under the plan, the United Nations refugee agency will work with the United States to set up processing centers in several nearby countries, where migrants would be temporarily out of danger.

As it does in other places, the United Nations will determine if the migrants could be eligible for refugee status. The administration officials said thousands — perhaps as many as 9,000 — migrants each year from the three countries, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, could eventually settle in the United States. But some refugees would also be sent to other countries in the hemisphere, officials said.

The new program comes amid a furious reaction by Democratic lawmakers and advocates for immigrants to a series of arrests during the holiday season in which women and children from Central America were rounded up for deportation after they failed to win asylum.

In a stunning rebuke just hours before President Obama was to come to Capitol Hill for his final State of the Union speech, more than 140 Democrats issued a scathing letter accusing the administration of wrongfully deporting women and children who had come here seeking refuge from violence.

The White House, eager to head off a showdown on the day of the president’s speech, sent the White House counsel, W. Neil Eggleston, to a hastily called meeting in the office of the House Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California.

The meeting succeeded only in slightly delaying a news conference announcing the letter and imploring the administration to shift course.

“The administration needs to go in a different direction,” Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said at the news conference, adding leadership muscle to the protest. “Yes, send a message but do not send a message by putting literally hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in fear.”

Democratic lawmakers said they were furious over the raids, which began on Dec. 31, when they said lawmakers were distracted by family and the holidays. Representative Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois accused the administration of beginning the raids “without consultation” with members of Capitol Hill.

Administration officials insisted that planning for the refugee program had been in the works for many weeks, with negotiations proceeding with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and with several countries in the region, and that the initiative was not a response to the outcry over the raids.

The administration decided to press for a formal refugee program, the officials said, after concluding that the epidemic of violence by international criminal gangs in the three countries had reached crisis proportions and required a broader regional response.

The administration was increasingly concerned that it could face another chaotic influx like the one in 2014, with women and children pouring across the southwest border seeking asylum, overwhelming detention centers and immigration courts.

Many advocates for the migrants, who are mainly women and children, have urged the White House to treat them as refugees. But it was not clear that the new plan would immediately mollify Mr. Obama’s critics.

The refugee program moves slowly, and under an initiative the administration began last year allowing children to apply in their home countries for refugee status, more than 6,000 young people have applied, but only five have arrived so far in the United States, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nongovernmental organization.

The new refugee plan is far more ambitious than that program, which was limited to minors with parents living in the United States who are citizens or legal immigrants. Under the new plan, any adult claiming to be fleeing persecution can apply to the United Nations. But the laws determining eligibility to come to the United States as a refugee will not change, officials said.

The plan is to provide an alternative for the migrants to paying money to smugglers and risking the dangers of the journey across Mexico, while also cutting off the illegal flow across the southwestern border, which had begun to surge again in recent months. “We want to do our utmost to honor humanitarian claims but also to protect the border,” one senior administration official said, speaking anonymously in advance of the program’s announcement.

The officials declined to name the countries where temporary centers would be set up as processing way stations, saying delicate negotiations were still underway. But people who were briefed on the plans said Belize, Costa Rica and Mexico were under consideration. The migrants would stay in the temporary centers while the United Nations was reviewing them, but it has not been decided if they would be in camps or some other, less restrictive shelters.

Several other Latin American countries are weighing whether to accept refugees after they have been initially approved by the United Nations, the administration officials said.

Any refugees coming to the United States from Central America would undergo the same criminal and terrorism background checks as those from most other regions of the world. Officers would be on the lookout for gang members trying to slip through the system, a senior administration official said.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will travel to Guatemala on Thursday to attend the inauguration of President Jimmy Morales, and the new program will be discussed then.

Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said lawmakers objected to the wave of deportations in particular because they had received no notice about the arrests that the Obama administration was preparing. Some Democrats and advocates have asked the administration to offer a special protected status to Central American asylum-seekers already in this country, he said. Administration officials said this week that they had rejected this approach.

But Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, who is another leader in drafting the letter to the president, said she had urged the administration to broaden refugee screening and resettlement in the region, a proposal much closer to the administration’s plan. “Deportation is not going to deter you if your dad was just murdered, your husband was just murdered, your brother was just murdered, and now they are coming for you,” she said.



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