Ana Ruano and her daughter Julissa Escobar lingered near a Minneapolis airport arrivals gate, held each other and wept. That day in late June, they met for the first time in 13 years.
Escobar, 21, is among eight people who arrived in Minnesota in recent months through a new program to reunite Central Americans living in the United States with their children. The Obama administration launched it in response to a surge in unaccompanied minors from the region crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Officials tout the program as an orderly alternative to treacherous journeys at the mercy of human smugglers — a route Ruano contemplated but feared too much.
“It’s a miracle,” she said of the program, which granted her daughter refugee status. “I worry I will wake up and find out it never happened.”
The program, which has brought in at least 145 people nationally, has also drawn criticism. Republican lawmakers called on the government to halt it, arguing it condones illegal immigration. They say the initiative distorts the legal definition of a refugee, which hasn’t traditionally applied to people fleeing gang violence.
Meanwhile, some immigrant advocates have criticized the requirement that parents must have at least temporary legal status to apply for their children, as well as the yearlong waits to process applications they say put some children at risk.
In response, the government announced an agreement last week with Costa Rica to host children deemed in immediate danger while their applications are pending. The administration also expanded the program to allow adult siblings and some caregivers to come to the United States as well.
In 2003, Ruano came to the United States on a tourist visa, leaving Escobar with her father’s family in El Salvador. Ruano stayed, remarried and had two more children. She supported her daughter financially and kept in touch, but felt nothing she did made up for her absence.
“I lived for reuniting with her,” Ruano said in Spanish.
She often thought about hiring a smuggler, but stories of kidnappings, sexual assault and forced labor during those journeys terrified her. In the spring of 2015, as news reports about gang murders and corruption in her home country grew bleaker, she felt new urgency.
That’s when Twin Cities immigration attorney Carrie Peltier told Ruano about the Central American Minors program, launched in December 2014. The program could spare Escobar not only the dangerous trip, but also the legal uncertainty faced by Central Americans pursuing asylum after crossing into the United States, Peltier said.
That fiscal year, more than 51,000 minors from Central America arrived unaccompanied, up 1,460 percent from five years earlier. Analysts point to a tangle of factors for the surge: above all rampant gang violence, but also poverty and the chance to reunite with family.
Parents who have legal status can sponsor unmarried children younger than 21, as well as a spouse who lives with the child. The vast majority of participating parents have Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, which allows people from countries ravaged by war or natural disaster to stay and work, but not become permanent residents or bring children.
The United States granted TPS to Salvadorans who had arrived here before devastating earthquakes in 2001 and has extended it since, which is why most applications have been from El Salvador. Ruano’s husband has TPS and applied to bring his stepdaughter here.
According to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ombudsman, more than 8,000 people had applied by April of this year. Of the 144 who had arrived, about a third received refugee status. The rest were granted parole: permission to enter the country that doesn’t offer a path to citizenship. In those cases, families covered the cost of the trip.
The International Institute of Minnesota, the refugee resettlement agency that brought Escobar, also completed applications for five children who came on parole. There, staff say they don’t know why unlike them, Escobar qualified for refugee status. About 40 more applications are pending.
Another local refugee resettlement agency, Arrive Ministries, has brought in three people as refugees. They include an 18-year-old Salvadoran and his mother, sponsored by the teen’s father, who hadn’t seen them in 15 years. Gang members told the teen they would kill him if he did not join up, said Timothy Paulson, a legal services assistant at the agency: “The fear people live under is hard to comprehend.”
Too fast or too slow?
At the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for limiting immigration, spokesman Ira Mehlman doesn’t deny the three Central American nations are troubled places. But, he argues, applying the definition of a refugee — someone fleeing persecution based on race, religion, political views or membership in a specific social group — to people from high-crime regions is a leap.
“The president again makes a mockery of immigration laws,” said Mehlman, whose organization sued the government last month for more information on the scope of the program.
The suit came after 38 Republicans in the U.S. House called for an end to what they called a program “meant to promote lawlessness and incentivize further illegal immigration.” They noted the program doesn’t charge applicants any fees and gives those who qualify for refugee status access to federal financial support and public benefits.
USCIS referred questions to the U.S. State Department, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Immigrant advocates say the wait as officials interview applicants and conduct DNA testing is too long, apparently driving some applicants to use smugglers after all. The USCIS ombudsman echoed that concern, citing reports that teens were killed midway through the application process.
“Kids and parents accept the dangers of this journey because the dangers at home are so much worse,” said Deepinder Mayell, education and outreach director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for New Americans. “To tell them to stay and wait is not always practical.”
To Ruano, the nine months it took to bring her daughter felt brief after the 13-year separation. The turnaround is also rapid by the standards of the U.S. refugee family reunification program, which usually takes three to five years, says Micaela Schuneman at the International Institute.
Still, she said, “For people waiting in a dangerous situation, a year can be a long time.”
Mayell, a critic of the administration’s detentions and deportations of recent Central American arrivals, says the program’s criteria are too limiting: Whether a child qualifies for protection shouldn’t depend on a parent’s immigration status. In a 2015 report, the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute said the program’s scope makes it unlikely to affect the flow of unaccompanied minors.
Ruano says for her family, the program was transformative.
She was worried her daughter’s pregnancy, now in its sixth month, might jeopardize her application, but it did not. Escobar, a freshman in college when she left El Salvador, hopes to continue her studies after she gives birth and become a nurse.
“I feel so calm now,” Ruano said. “She is here.”