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Guatemalan Experience under New Central American Minors Prog

Migration 2023-03-15, 8:40pm


Report - Guetemalan experiences under the Central American Minors Programme

Today marks two years since the Biden administration re-launched the Central American Minors (CAM) Program. The program—which was started under the Obama administration and shut down during the Trump administration—is designed to reunite children at risk in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with their parents in the United States. While the Biden administration rebooted and expanded the program, very few—if any—Guatemalan children have arrived in the United States as either refugees or parolees through the program despite massive need.  

Refugees International's new report details the shortcomings of the program and recommendations for how it can be bolstered to be fit for purpose as more unaccompanied Guatemalan children have arrived at the U.S. southern border than children of any other nationality. Many of the shortcomings and recommendations can also be applied to other Biden administration initiatives to increase pathways to safety for people in the region.

The Central American Minors (CAM) program is designed to reunite children at risk in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with their parents in the United States. Expanded eligibility under the Biden administration’s Phase 2 of the program has given more Guatemalan parents the ability to apply for CAM since September 2021. The absence of public reporting on CAM arrivals makes accountability difficult, but Refugees International’s research makes clear that few, if any, Guatemalan children have arrived in the United States as either refugees or parolees through Phase 2 of the CAM program. This is troubling, given that children in Guatemala face high rates of violence and lack of access to social services and that more unaccompanied Guatemalan children have arrived at the U.S. southern border than children of any other nationality. The shortcomings of CAM as a refugee and parole pathway for Guatemalan children is also striking given the Biden administration’s commitment to resettle 15,000 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean and its parole of tens of thousands of Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans since the fall of 2022. 

On the second anniversary of the Biden administration’s CAM program, as thousands of Guatemalan children cross the border to unite with their parents and few use the CAM pathway, it is important to analyze why CAM has fallen short. Refugees International found that there is too little outreach to and support for Guatemalan parents eligible to apply for CAM. It is difficult for their children in Guatemala to get to their CAM program interviews, where they lack support presenting their claims so that too few are granted refugee status. Children also have difficulty getting passports to leave Guatemala and, if granted parole, are ineligible for services they need after arrival in the United States. Thousands of children who leave Guatemala on their own to unite with their parents in the United States are repatriated by Mexican authorities and have no knowledge of the program.

Despite these challenges, the CAM program offers Guatemalan parents and children the ability to plan for a brighter future and forego the alternative of precarious legal status and potentially abusive work conditions in the United States, as is sadly the case for many Guatemalan children who migrate today. This report outlines how the Biden administration should reform and invest in the program so that it is a more meaningful pathway for Guatemalans. Doing so could make CAM more like the “bendición” or “blessing” Guatemalan CAM applicants interviewed by Refugees International hoped it could be.

Beyond suggesting ways to improve and expand CAM, this case study addresses policy issues relevant to several other initiatives of the Biden administration. These include the viability of protection programs that rely on applications filed by sponsors in the United States; the difficulties that arise with in-country refugee processing; and the challenges faced by those who enter on temporary parole status. Its recommendations for reform also have broad application for policy relating to child protection, asylum and refugee adjudication, family reunification, and migration management. Refugees International’s research made clear that reforms to CAM can make it a viable pathway for more Guatemalans, but also that CAM, even at its best, can only meet a fraction of the protection needs of Guatemalan children and families.  

Lack of Data on CAM Arrivals and Eligibility 

Precise statistics for Phase 2 of the CAM program are not publicly available and certainly not broken down by nationality. Between the start of the CAM program during the Obama administration and August 2017, 1,627 children had come to the United States as refugees and 1,465 as parolees. Very few of these children were Guatemalans; in 2016, 11 Guatemalan children arrived in the United States through the CAM program. As a result of a court settlement, 1,613 parolees whose travel was conditionally approved by 2017 came to the United States through CAM between October 2019 and December 2022. According to the U.S. State Department, 130 CAM applicants were resettled as refugees and approximately 60 were paroled into the United States between April 2021 and June 2022. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services told IRAP that, as of September 1, 2022, more than 310 individuals were paroled into the United States through CAM in Fiscal Year 2022. There may be some overlap in the different reported parole figures, and there have been some additional CAM applicants who arrived as refugees and parolees over the last few months. The vast majority of these cases were part of “Phase 1” of the Biden administration’s CAM program for those who had submitted applications that had never been adjudicated before the Trump administration ended the program in 2017. Of these, only 2 percent were Guatemalans. The State Department and resettlement agencies have confirmed to Refugees International that there have been very few CAM Phase 2 arrivals so far. All of Refugees International’s research indicates that, as of the end of February 2023, it is highly unlikely that any Guatemalan Phase 2 CAM cases have arrived in the United States.

There is also a lack of precise statistics on how many parents and legal guardians in the United States were newly made eligible to apply for CAM in Phase 2. A Biden administration official indicated at the time of the announced expansion that 100,000 more parents were made eligible to apply for CAM. This figure seems to be based on the number of people from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with pending asylum applications and U visa petitions (to whom the CAM program was newly accessible). But it is unknown how many of these people have minor children in El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. We do know that almost 129,000 unaccompanied children mostly from these three countries were referred by the Department of Homeland Security to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2022 and that about 45,000 of them were released by ORR to their parents or legal guardians. 47 percent of the children who went through ORR in 2022 were Guatemalan. If we assume that children of all nationalities are equally likely to be released to parents or guardians, almost 21,000 Guatemalan children came to the U.S.-Mexico border and were released to parents or legal guardians in 2022. We do not know how many of these parents or legal guardians would be eligible to apply for CAM. But, as of February 2023, Refugee International’s research indicated that only about 1,000 applications for Phase 2 of CAM have been submitted and only about one fourth of them from Guatemalans. This is a tiny number of Guatemalan applications for CAM Phase 2.  


To address current shortcomings, the Biden administration would need to invest in additional resources for the CAM program and change the way it is administered. It must collaborate purposefully with officials and organizations in Guatemala and Mexico, and increase outreach to and engagement with Guatemalan families, especially from indigenous communities. Much more transparency is needed regarding the handling of applications and interviews in Guatemala. And much more security and support must be provided for parents—including asylum seeking parents—and children, including those admitted on parole, in the United States. 

Recommendations to the government of the United States:  


Increase availability of information and data about CAM. USCIS should institute an online “Check Case Status” feature for CAM Program cases so that families have a better understanding of where their case is in the process. USCIS should also provide families with at least two weeks of notice of an interview appointment. USCIS and the State Department should jointly publish regular data about the number of CAM applications filed, processing times, outcomes, and arrivals disaggregated by nationality and by Phase 1 and 2.

Hire and train more refugee officers. To ensure that more CAM applicants can gain refugee status and that their cases are processed within six months, USCIS must hire more refugee officers. These officers must be trained in child friendly interviewing techniques and to better understand the country conditions, and evaluate persecution claims prevalent, in Guatemala, including by adopting UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) guidelines until a U.S. regulation is promulgated on adjudicating claims involving gang and domestic violence and persecution based upon membership in a particular social group. Interpretation in indigenous languages must be available at all steps in the process.

Create a legal services program for children in the CAM program. U.S. legal service providers should work with Guatemalan counterparts, including indigenous language speakers, to help CAM applicants prepare for refugee interviews and accompany them to these interviews. These Guatemalan attorneys should also help CAM applicants with legal proceedings needed to get passports.

Minimize travel requirements for CAM applicants inside Guatemala. USCIS should minimize the travel required to Guatemala City for processing and adjudication of CAM applications. This could be done by sending officers to different parts of the country, through the use of video technology, and through ensuring DNA appointments are done at the same time as interviews.

Improve the process for expediting urgent cases. Though resettlement agencies can request that cases be expedited, there is no clear standard for which cases merit expeditious processing or how expeditious this processing can be. In cases where the child has no caregiver or place to live, has a serious medical condition, or is in verifiable imminent danger, USCIS should authorize case-by-case parole without waiting for a refugee interview.

Streamline the process for all CAM re-parole applications. The re-parole application process should be easily navigable and available online and not require a fee or the submission of a I-134 declaration of financial support. USCIS should re-parole (and backdate expired parole for) all who have entered through CAM absent extraordinary circumstances, given that the humanitarian basis for the underlying parole has already been vetted by the agency. Re-parole should be for two years, and USCIS should also automatically extend associated work authorization. 


Retool funding to reach and support eligible parents in the United States. The State Department should provide funding to indigenous-led and community organizations in the United States that work with the Guatemalan community to do outreach on CAM and help parents apply for the program, including Indigenous language speakers. The State Department should fund resettlement agencies through upfront grants for their work on all CAM Affidavit of Relationship (AOR)s rather than fund them only after children and caregivers arrive as refugees (and not for those who enter on parole).

Increase shelter capacity for at-risk children. The State Department should sign an agreement with the Refugio de la Niñez, a civil society organization who is a trusted U.S. government partner in Guatemala, to provide shelter to children (including those who are pregnant) and their caregiver. Information about the shelter should be available to all CAM families in the country.   

Provide trainings in Guatemala on the CAM program. State Department officials should provide training and information regarding the CAM program to Migrant Resource Center (MRC) staff in the fixed and mobile units. MRC staff include the IOM, UNICEF, UNHCR and the Refugio de la Niñez.

Refer children in Guatemala for refugee interviews. The State Department should work with Guatemalan authorities, UN agencies, international organizations, and local NGOs and community organizations to identify children at risk (regardless of their ties to the United States) and refer them to refugee interviews. 


Appropriate funds for CAM, including for all CAM-related DNA testing; for safe transport, housing, and legal support for children going through in-country CAM processing; and for post-arrival services for all children who come through the CAM program to ensure that they have access to case management and the mental health and legal services they need.    

Recommendations to the government of Guatemala: 

Inform agencies that work with returned children about CAM. The Guatemalan Institute for Migration should provide information on the CAM program following protection screenings in at Casa Nuestras Raices (the returned children center). Casa Nuestras Raices can work to identify children with protection concerns who may have qualifying parents in the United States.

Change passport requirements for children. The Guatemalan government should update its passport requirement to allow for a judge to sign off on best interest determinations of the child, which would eliminate the need for Guatemalans to undergo an arduous court process to waive or terminate the parental rights of absent or abusive partners.    

Recommendations to the government of Mexico:

Expand family reunification pilot program in northern Mexico. The government of Mexico, with support from the U.S. State Department, should expand to other parts of Mexico their pilot program providing best interest screenings and family reunification with parents in the United States.   

Source: Refugees International