A limited number of young people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will now be able to apply for refugee status in the United States without leaving their home country, the Obama administration announced on Tuesday.
The program, as outlined in a proposal by the State Department, would allow legal U.S. residents to request a refugee interview for a child under the age of 21 who is unmarried and lives in one of the three Central American countries. Normally, a refugee would apply for protection after fleeing their home country.
A White House official said in an email that "decisions on several program parameters are still being considered" but the goal is "to provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the U.S."
Representatives from several refugee organizations greeted the news with caution.
"It's a welcome start," said Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS. "But I don't think it's going to be a comprehensive solution on finding safe options for these kids."
President Obama faced a major crisis over the summer, with tens of thousands of Central Americans flooding into the U.S. with the hopes of staying. Among the migrants in the past year were more than 66,000 unaccompanied minors.
In light of the crisis—and the inability of Congress to pass an immigration reform bill—the president has vowed to enact a series of policy changes to address the wave of migrants and the undocumented population already in the U.S.
The announcement by the White House came as part of an annual update related to refugee visas. The changes open the door to creating in-country refugee processing in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but further steps would need to be taken by the Obama administration to establish screening centers abroad.
While some Central American children from those three countries will be able to apply for refugee status, the number of available visas will be relatively small.
In the 2014 fiscal year, 5,000 visas were made available to people applying from Latin America and the Caribbean. This fiscal year—beginning Oct. 1—the president allocated 4,000 visas.
In recent years, Latin Americans have received a small amount of the refugee visa allotment, with the exception of Cubans. In the 2013 fiscal year, the U.S. gave 4,205 visas to Cubans, making up 6 percent of the total refugee visas pool.
The policy changes have been rumored since the summer, when an administration official leaked details to The New York Times.
Marc Rosenblum, deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), said the move is "a significant improvement from a humanitarian perspective," but limited in scope.
"It doesn't begin to address the totality of that phenomenon and it doesn't address the root causes at all," he said. "It's a more humane way to address the symptoms."
Eleanor Acer, director of the refugee protection program at Human Rights First, was less optimistic.
She cited the in-country refugee processing of Haitians in the early 1990s as a warning for U.S. officials. "Very few people were actually resettled under the process, so it didn't have much credibility," she said.
From the start of that program in February 1992 to the end of that year, 15,580 Haitians applied for refugee status, according to one report. Only 136 were accepted as refugees.
While refugee processing abroad can preempt a hazardous journey to the U.S., staying can carry its own risks. "In many circumstances, you're encouraging people to stay in what is a dangerous situation," Acer said."
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.