Jorge was set to travel to the United States from El Salvador this past summer. The 20-year-old, whose family requested that his real name not be used in this story because of fear for his safety, was hoping to finally escape the gang violence that plagues his home country and to reunite with his family. Last year, he was granted parole through the Central American Minors program, which offered a legal channel for minors from Central America to escape violence and rejoin parents legally present in the U.S.
This past August, though, Juan, Jorge’s father, received a letter informing the family that President Donald Trump had canceled the parole portion of the CAM program and his son would have to stay in El Salvador.
“We were very saddened after hearing the news,” Juan told me. “It’s been 18 years since I saw my son.” Juan has been in the United States since 2000 when he came here with temporary protected status. His wife joined in 2007, but Jorge and his sister, Sandra, did not.
“It was a huge blow for us,” Juan told me of his response to hearing about Jorge losing his status. “We are very fearful and worried about my son’s safety now.”
Those who have been hurt by Trump’s Muslim travel ban efforts and his DACA rescission have garnered a good deal of deserved media attention. But the thousands of young people affected by the revocation of CAM parole status have had their lives thrown into jeopardy by the Trump administration’s malicious and haphazard immigration policies—and they have received far less visibility. Young people who had already been granted the chance to escape violent persecution and rejoin loved ones to start a new life in America were suddenly and callously stripped of that promise. It is one of the most vicious things Trump has done in his short time in office.
On Aug. 16, the Trump administration ended the parole portion of the CAM program and canceled parole approval for 2,714 young people who had already gone through the arduous application process. The program offered two-year renewable parole status to minors from Central America who were fleeing gang violence and political instability after it was enacted by the Obama administration in 2014. That year, rates of unaccompanied minors making the treacherous journey alone to the U.S. from South and Central America had skyrocketed to 68,500, largely due to the widespread proliferation of gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Through the CAM program, parents with legal status in the U.S. could apply for refugee status for children under 21 who still lived in one of these countries. If refugee status was not granted—often the case due to lack of legal resources—but these applicants were still found to be in grave danger, they could obtain parole to reunite with their families in the U.S. and seek further legal relief in safety.
For the time being, the refugee portion of the CAM program is still in place, although advocates I spoke with say that interviews for CAM applicants have stalled indefinitely and that they are unsure of the future of the program. There are 1,500 young people who already arrived in the U.S. as parolees through the CAM program, along with 1,586 refugees. A total of 13,527 applications had been submitted to date, with the vast majority coming from El Salvador. Trump’s decision put the brakes on hope for a new life for thousands of young people like Jorge who are now relegated to live in constant fear.
“I’m doing bad,” Sandra, Jorge’s sister, told me through tears. “There was hope that he was going to come and suddenly overnight a letter came saying, ‘Your brother won’t be able to enter the U.S.’ ”
“The worst [part] is I don’t know if he’s doing OK,” she continued. “If the gangs are going to do something to him, if when he goes in the street they will stop him or hit him, or they could kill him.”
Sandra, 21, applied through the CAM program along with her brother, but unlike Jorge she was granted refugee status. Since making the journey in May, Sandra has been living with her mom, dad, and three U.S.-born siblings in California. “I don’t know why they gave my brother parole and gave me refugee status, because both of us were facing practically the same situation with the gangs,” Sandra said.
Juan believes his son may have been denied refugee status because he has autism and cannot look people in the eye when he speaks, which could have given officers the impression he had something to hide. The family plans to appeal the denial, but experts told me his chances are slim.
Trump’s decision to retroactively take away parole status from thousands of youth is “just unconscionable,” according to Lisa Frydman, vice president of Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group that works on behalf of unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children. “It shows a complete abandoning of children, and it’s the opposite of what this country stands for.”
The future of the 1,500 youth with parolee status who have already arrived in the U.S. is also uncertain. It looks like parolees will be able to reapply, but they may be held to new, more stringent standards. “Under this administration it has been signaled that any parole request will be met with pretty significant scrutiny,” Frydman told me. “The signal is that people fleeing situations of violence, danger, and instability will not necessarily qualify [as] someone for parole based on the urgent humanitarian reason.”
“We are really concerned that people will not be reparoled and then could even become targets for deportation,” she added.
“My parole is for two years, and I have already been here almost a year, so I was nervous when I heard about the parole cancellation,” said Priscila, a 19-year-old parolee who is attending community college in California now that she has been reunited with her mom. “I cannot go back to El Salvador.”
Priscila isn’t sure why she didn’t get refugee status, but she describes experiencing sexual violence before she came here. “I was being harassed,” she told me. “[Gang members] would follow me, and they pinned me against a wall and tried to kiss me.”
“There is too much death and violence all around my life,” she continued. “They killed the best friend of my brother-in-law and left him inside a car.”
When Priscila took the bus to school, she had to carry extra cash because gang members would demand “rent” from passengers. Those who refused would be subject to threats or violence. Priscila says that sometimes gang members would shoot passengers on the bus as a form of intimidation. Sandra relates that when Jorge had a job, gang members would force him to pay “rent” on the money he earned as well. Now Jorge does not work or go to school because he is too afraid to leave his home.
Around 30 percent of CAM applicants have been granted refugee status, and 68 percent were granted parole, according to Frydman, with about 2 percent denied. “Refugee status itself requires establishing persecution or fear of persecution on account of very specific grounds,” she explained. “The reason that [parole] was particularly important in this program is that you had children on their own going into refugee interviews without legal representation.” In many cases, children who likely would have been granted refugee status had they been represented by counsel, better understood the process, and had access to support gathering evidence were given parole status instead.
The Northern Triangle—home to the countries in question—has some of the highest murder rates in the world. A KIND report released in May details how gangs in these countries often target girls and LGBTQ individuals for gender-based violence, routinely forcing middle school–aged children to become gang members’ “girlfriends.” These girls, many aged 12-16, endure rape, physical abuse, and torture. When they attempt to leave relationships, the punishment is often death.
Government institutions such as police forces are powerless or complicit in gang activities, leaving many young people with nowhere to turn for safety. In some areas, up to 95 percent of crimes go unpunished. These are the conditions that led hundreds of thousands of children to make the treacherous journey to the U.S. in the past few years. As Trump has taken away one of the only legal options for children to leave such horrific circumstances behind, those circumstances have remained unchanged.
Additionally, the application for CAM status could itself make these parole-seekers a target for gangs. “In many cases, the families have experienced the loss of other relatives [at] the hands of gang members and … have been receiving [further] threats,” said Lilian Alba, a director at the International Institute of Los Angeles, one of 300 approved refugee resettlement agencies that process CAM applications. Information about such violence had to be presented at interviews with U.S. immigration officials. This required obtaining police reports, potentially alerting neighbors that applicants were reporting gang activity to U.S. immigration authorities. “So there’s a concern that if gang members realize they presented evidence that these minors might be at a higher risk now,” Alba told me.
For many families, returning to the days of crossing the border illegally to seek asylum in the U.S. will once again be their only option. “If they don’t have a way to get here safely, and they’ve gone through this whole process, and they are in danger … people are going to have no choice but to flee,” says Frydman. “They’re going to be forced to rely on smugglers, and some might end up in the hands of traffickers to get here.”
As Trump has continued to rail against the evils of illegal immigration, he has cut off one of the only options for some of the world’s most endangered children to come here legally. Witnessing what happened to her brother, Sandra has a question for the president. “Why have you shut the door,” she asks, “so we can’t see a light?”