In a week that opened with the White House “cleaning house” at the Department of Homeland Security and ended with the president openly threatening to release detained immigrants into so-called sanctuary cities to “punish” his immigration reform foes, some good news has come in a major legal challenge to another secretive and “tough” immigration policy. On Friday afternoon, the government signed a settlement agreement in a massive class-action suit challenging the Trump administration’s termination of the little-known Central American Minors (CAM) parole program. As a result of that agreement, almost 3,000 vulnerable kids will have a chance to be reunited with their families in the United States.
The Obama-era CAM program was created in 2014, following news of a surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle countries El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The initiative, intended to create a safe and lawful alternative to dangerous solo treks through Mexico, allowed lawful immigrants who lived in the U.S. to apply for refugee status on behalf of their children younger than 21 and certain eligible relatives. The secretary of homeland security was given case-by-case discretion to parole in foreign nationals for “urgent humanitarian reasons” or “significant public benefit” for those who perhaps didn’t meet the stringent definition of refugee but nevertheless merited consideration on the grounds of humanitarian relief. These eligibility determinations were made when the minors were still in their home countries so as to avoid dangerous solo travel via Mexico. Humanitarian parole would allow them to spend two years in the United States, without a pathway to citizenship.
The program stuttered to a stop almost as soon as Donald Trump took office. In response, a lawsuit was brought in June on behalf of the families of 12 minors whose lives were in limbo as the program languished. The suit, filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), one of the groups that first challenged the Trump administration’s travel ban, was on behalf of the more than 2,700 children who had already applied before the program was terminated but had received no answer. Many of these applicants had already gone through months or years of processing and had already been approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for relocation pending final medical and security checks. But the program was shuttered, first in secret, without any notice to the applicants, and then formally in August of 2017 with an unexplained mass rescission of conditional approval for parole status for nearly 3,000 children. Worse still, the plaintiffs alleged that USCIS had continued to accept money from applicant families—including $400 for DNA tests, $100 or more for medical exams, and $1,400 for each child’s plane ticket—long after the program had been decommissioned. In effect, they argued, the program was still taking applications on its website and accepting payments while rescinding everyone’s conditional approval en masse.
In December, a federal magistrate judge found that the cancellation of the program was illegal under the Administrative Procedure Act, which delineates how federal agencies propose and establish new regulations. Then, early last month, the same federal magistrate judge in San Francisco ordered the administration to restart the processing of CAM applications for those who had already been conditionally approved, finding that the government’s action was causing irreparable harm to the plaintiffs by preventing their children from escaping life-threatening danger. She gave the government until March 21 to begin processing these children at late stages of processing again and explicitly ordered that “DHS may not adopt any policy, procedure, or practice of not processing the beneficiaries or placing their processing on hold en masse” and “must process the beneficiaries in good faith.”
On Friday afternoon, the Department of Homeland Security entered into an agreement with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, in which USCIS now agrees to process the approximately 2,700 people who had been conditionally approved for parole prior to the CAM parole program’s termination and agrees to process them under the pre-termination standards. That means that, for the families who have been waiting for years to be reunified in the U.S. with children facing horrific danger and violence in Central America, at least the process of attempting to reunify now begins again.
For S.A., the plaintiff whose name is on the IRAP lawsuit, that will finally mean the possibility of reunification with her daughter and small grandson. S.A. has lived lawfully in the U.S. since 2001 under a program designed to help citizens of countries experiencing armed conflict. She works for a lice-removal company in San Francisco. Her youngest daughter, who still lives in San Salvador, has been threatened with brutal gang violence. She and her baby son had been cleared in February of 2017 to travel to the United States and had paid nearly $5,000 for their flights, DNA tests, and other processing requirements at that time. Their approval was rescinded when the CAM program was canceled. Similarly situated teens in the lawsuit, fleeing from horrific gang violence and sexual abuse, will now at minimum see their applications processed as promised.
For Linda Evarts, the attorney with IRAP who litigated this suit, the agreement with the Trump administration is an unalloyed win for reunification of families: “We are so pleased that after many years apart our clients will finally have the opportunity to reunite with each other in safety. These families belong together here in the United States, and we are hopeful this settlement will allow for their swift reunification.” Given the Trump administration’s current stance that holds that all migrants, but especially those from Central America, are de facto criminals and rapists and gang members, this willingness to sign off on a settlement agreement suggests yet again that this border crisis is less about public safety than ugly political signaling.