April 22, 2015 LIRS STATEMENT–“Eroding the Law and Diverting Taxpayer Resources: An Examination of the Administration’s Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program”

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary

April 23, 2015

By Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) appreciates the opportunity to submit its views on the Central American Minors (CAM) program for the record.  As the national organization founded by Lutherans to serve uprooted people, LIRS is committed to helping those who have been forced to flee their homes access the protections to which they are legally entitled. Following God’s call in scripture to uphold justice for the sojourner, LIRS advocates to ensure newcomers in the United States are treated fairly and humanely.

With 75 years of experience in service, LIRS is a leading voice on protecting vulnerable migrants and refugees, including children and families from Central America seeking refuge in the United States. In Fiscal Year 2014, LIRS and its Refugee Resettlement affiliates welcomed 11,198 refugees to their new communities and empowered them to build new lives.  In that same time period, LIRS’s Children’s Services affiliates served 21,826 unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the United States.

As one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the United States, LIRS has witnessed the impact of in-country refugee processing programs, like the CAM program for Central American children, in other volatile regions.  LIRS urges the United States Congress to robustly support the CAM program while also recognizing that it is only one protection tool with a very limited scope that will aid a small number of child refugees in Central America.  We encourage Congress and the Administration to ensure robust protections for all those suffering and fleeing persecution in the region.

“In-country processing programs such as the Central American Minors program act as a critical lifeline for vulnerable migrants who seek safety and a new life here in the United States,” said LIRS President and CEO Linda Hartke. “Restricting or ending this program would not only fail to honor the courage of these children, but also would betray our strong history as a nation of welcome and our Biblical call to welcome the stranger and protect the most vulnerable.”

It is beyond dispute that children living in the countries served by the CAM program- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador- face systemic gang violence, sexual and gender-based violence, forced recruitment into transnational gangs and drug cartels, domestic violence, abandonment, and trafficking.  A multitude of experts, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, agree that the danger facing children in these three Central American countries is dire and only getting worse.  UNHCR issued a report in 2014 finding that children and adults from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala filed 712% more claims for asylum in neighboring countries in 2013 than in 2008.

Out of deep concern for the safety of children in Central America, LIRS, supports the robust implementation of the CAM program.  We submit the following recommendations to ensure maximum success:

  • At this time, the CAM program is available only to children determined to be in danger of persecution who have parents with lawful immigration status in the United States. This limited scope restricts protection to a very small segment of the children who desperately need it. It is our recommendation that as the program evolves, consideration should be given to expanding the criteria for in-country processing, including to at-risk children and families without family ties in the United States.
  • We are concerned that children applying for the CAM program face danger during the application process, before they can complete the requirements.  We recommend establishing mechanisms to ensure that child applicants and their families have access to safety and protection while their cases make their way through the in-country process.
  • We recommend that transportation and safe shelter be provided for eligible children who do not live in the capital cities where processing will take place. If these opportunities are not available, many children who would otherwise benefit from the program will be excluded due to logistical obstacles that could easily be addressed.
  • Children and families paroled into the United States through the CAM program lack critical follow-up services that comprise the safety net provided to refugees.

LIRS understands that many children and families from Central America are in immediate peril and will continue to make the difficult journey to the United States in search of safety.  The establishment of the CAM program must not mean that other avenues to life-saving protection should close, especially since the current parameters of the program are so limited in scope. Under no circumstances should children or others seeking protection be turned away at the U.S. border, or at other borders along the migration route, and denied access to the United States asylum system.

LIRS urges the United States government to uphold its obligation to provide protection to individuals fleeing persecution in their homelands.  This obligation is found in international treaties the United States has ratified, such as the 1967 Protocol to the United Nations Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture, as well as in domestic immigration law.

Beyond these legal obligations, our nation has a long and proud history of living out the moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable newcomers and offer compassion and justice to all. LIRS is committed to ensuring that American policies and programs are just and protective of migrants and refugees who face the greatest risks.