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New Entry Program Reunites Some Immigrants With Their Children

A woman walks on a Suchiate River bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico. A State Department program allows some immigrants to bring their children to the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Eduardo Verdugo
A woman walks on a Suchiate River bridge connecting Guatemala and Mexico. A State Department program allows some immigrants to bring their children to the U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The State Department launched a program this month that creates a safe passage to the United States from Central America. It would give some U.S.-based Latino parents the chance to bring over children they left in their home countries.

More than 57,000 child migrants made the trip across the U.S.-Mexican border this year. Many report being physically and sexually abused along the harrowing journey.

The new program could benefit immigrants like Wilfredo Díaz, who left Honduras 16 years ago just before the birth of his third child. As they've grown, his kids have begged him to bring them to the United States to live with him in Brooklyn.

"I feel really bad, really bad, when they say to me, 'Dad, take us, take us,' " Díaz says.

What makes it harder for Díaz is that his son in particular has been targeted by gangs.

But Díaz decided long ago that he wouldn't allow his children to cross the border.

"Some girls are used as prostitutes," Díaz says. "I don't want that to happen to my two daughters."

Now there may be a safer way for Díaz's children to join him. Under the new State Department program, the mother or father has to be in the U.S. legally, and their kids must be living in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala.

The program will allow parents to request interviews for their children to see if they can qualify as refugees. Qualifying as a refugee puts you on a path to citizenship.

"The definition for refugee status is relatively narrow, and it's a high bar," says Catherine Wiesner, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of State.

One of the major reasons child migrants have given for fleeing to the U.S. is to escape gang violence. That is often not sufficient to get refugee status.

But applicants who don't meet the refugee bar still may be able to come to the U.S. If they can show they face imminent danger, they might qualify for something called humanitarian parole.

Getting parole does not put you on a path to citizenship, but as Wiesner points out, it could provide a way to come to the U.S. safely.

"You know, one of the most important things about doing this program in country, to allow children to make these humanitarian claims in country, is that it avoids them taking this incredibly dangerous journey," she says.

The Obama administration has unfurled this program quietly. Parents who want their children to interview to come to the U.S. will have to submit the requests through organizations like Catholic Charities.

Mario Russell, with Catholic Charities in New York, says he thinks this new program acknowledges how bad things are in some Central American countries.

"The old models, I think, by which families were divided, that is to say that some children stayed in the home country were raised by a grandparent, just don't work anymore because the conditions have become really unsustainable, and that's why I think they're leaving in large measure," Russell says.

There are a lot of children in Central America who could show they are in danger. The fact that they need to have parents with legal status in the U.S. will cut down on applications.

In this sense, Díaz is lucky. Sixteen years ago, he became eligible for something called Temporary Protected Status or TPS.

TPS is for immigrants who are already residing in the U.S. when a natural or humanitarian disaster hits their country. Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras just a couple of months after Díaz arrived, so he's been able to live and work in the U.S. legally ever since.

But he still wasn't allowed to bring his kids over. When he contemplates reuniting with them, he gets emotional.

"It would be an enormous happiness to have my children here," he says.

The State Department launched the program earlier this month. Díaz says he will request asylum interviews for his kids before the end of the year.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Alexandra Starr
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