The immigration solution that wasn't

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Let’s say you’re a child living in one of the most dangerous countries on the planet and risk getting killed by gang members, so you want to go live with your relatives in the United States. To escape the violence, you have two options: 1) pack up and head to the U.S. illegally, or 2) stay put and apply for a long-shot visa.


What would you do?

The Obama administration hopes that children in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala will choose option two. Vice President Joe Biden unveiled details on Friday about a program set to start next month that will allow vulnerable children in those countries to apply for refugee status from home, as long as they have a parent living in the U.S. legally.


The ostensible aim is to prevent kids from attempting a dangerous journey north, while stemming the influx of children arriving without documentation at the southern U.S border — a situation that led to a "humanitarian crisis" earlier this year, in the words of President Obama.

So the new program is a win-win, right? Not really.

The U.S. government has tried something like this before. Turn back the clock to Haiti in the early 1990s.

The Caribbean country had suffered for decades under a father-son dynasty, and the conditions on the island were so bad that a steady exodus of refugees had become the norm.

Legal immigration wasn't really an option. From 1981 to 1991, U.S. authorities caught more than 25,000 Haitians heading for Florida. Of those, only 28 were allowed to enter the U.S., according to data from federal immigration officials. The best bet for Haitian refugees was to reach Miami undetected.


The refugee flow slowed in the late 1980s under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president. He was overthrown in 1991, however, and Haitians again boarded makeshift rafts with the hope of reaching U.S. soil.

Then-President George H.W. Bush decided that the best policy would be the swift return of migrants to Haiti. The Supreme Court upheld that decision in January 1992, amid fears that 20,000 Haitians would soon arrive at Florida shores.


Under international treaties, refugees aren't supposed to be returned to their home countries until their claim has been heard. Rapid repatriation ignored that ideal.

The Bush administration offered a consolation prize: it gave Haitians the ability to apply for refugee status in-country. Hypothetically, that option could have spared them a perilous boat trip. But the alternative wasn't much better, according to Harold Koh, a professor at the Yale Law School. He testified before Congress at the time and called the refugee status process "suicide."


Haitians seeking asylum would need to pass through a virtual phalanx of security forces to reach the consulate where they would submit their applications, subjecting themselves to scrutiny from the very people they were hoping to escape. Even if they reached the office, they would then have to endure "highly adversarial proceedings with U.S. immigration officials," according to Koh. One trip probably wouldn't be enough, either. They would have to return and repeat the process several times before finding out if the application had been accepted.

Not only was the process risky, the odds of a successful application were slim. From the start of that program in February 1992 to the end of that year, 15,580 Haitians applied for refugee status, according to "In-Country Refugee Processing of Haitians: The Case Against," a report by immigration expert Bill Frelick. Only 136 were accepted as refugees.


The odds for Central American kids likely won't be very good, either. By the State Department's own admission, "a relatively small number" of children from those countries will likely qualify as refugees this year. The pool of refugee visas for Latin American countries is tiny — just 4,000 per year — and most have gone to Cubans.

Perhaps other options should be more seriously considered. The president could expand the number of visas available to Latin American migrants or Congress could create a program that allows Central American children an easier passage to the U.S. As it stands now, however, this is just moving the problem away from the U.S. border and back to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.


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.

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