Four sisters got off a plane from El Salvador one day in February, ran into the arrivals hall at Los Angeles International Airport, and hugged their father for the first time in six years.
Their dad, Jesús, was on his knees as Genesis, age 9, ran into his outstretched arms, dragging her pink princess suitcase behind her. Adriana, 7, slid across the tiled floor to join the pileup. Older sisters Amy, 20, and Abigail, 18, followed with carts of suitcases.
Like thousands of other children leaving Central America to come to the U.S., the girls were escaping chronic gang violence in San Salvador, where even the walk home from school is risky and straying into the wrong neighborhood can be a death sentence.
“I’m so happy because after so many years, it finally happened,” Amy said. “We couldn't believe we were actually here.”
The way these girls arrived in the U.S.—on a commercial flight, passing easily through Customs—is far from the reality of the 15,000 migrant children currently held in government custody, including more than 5,000 in overcrowded border patrol holding cells. The Martínez sisters were admitted to the U.S. through the Central American Minors Program, which allows certain children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to apply for asylum from their home countries and then reunite with parents in the U.S. without making the dangerous journey across Mexico.
The program, known as CAM, was established in 2014 during Obama’s administration, in response to overwhelming numbers of children trying to reach the U.S. That summer, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border hit record levels of over 10,500 in a single month. Through CAM, children of people living legally in the U.S. could apply for refugee status or temporary parole from their home countries, undergoing an extensive interview process, including medical exams and DNA tests. If approved, they could fly directly to the U.S., bypassing Mexico, the border, and the complex holding system of border patrol, Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters, and the backlogged asylum process.
In 2017, the Trump administration cancelled the program abruptly and with no notice, but the Biden administration reinstated it earlier this month. The Departments of State and Homeland Security, which co-administer the program, cast it as a critical step in alleviating the pressure caused by large numbers of minors turning up unaccompanied at the border. But while the program undoubtedly helps some, critics say it will have limited effect on conditions at the border, as it doesn’t apply to most children fleeing their homes.
Amy Martínez, 19, right, with her younger sisters and an NGO volunteer the day before traveling to the U.S. in March 2020. The next day, their journey would be cancelled.
When Biden took office in January, his administration began allowing children to enter for the first time since former President Donald Trump effectively closed the border in March of last year. Just last month, over 9,000 unaccompanied children arrived. Most spent days in overcrowded border patrol facilities, before being sent to either a massive tent in the desert or one of the smaller, government-run shelters, where capacity has been stretched thin by COVID and the record arrivals. The Biden administration is coming under fire for what many see as an unprepared and inhumane response, not so different from his predecessor’s.
In a press conference Monday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited the restart of the Central American Minors program as one factor that would improve conditions on the border. In practice, though, the children the program would help are generally not those currently sitting in CBP cells.
Maria Odom, now vice president for legal programs at Kids in Need of Defense, evaluated the CAM program in 2016 when she was ombudsman of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Is it the only tool? No,” she told VICE News. “I think it is one of the many strategies that the new administration has to employ.”
At the time, she faulted the program for prohibitive delays and costs. Many who might have been eligible did not know the program existed, and those who did had no access to legal counsel during the application process.
Who’s really eligible?
The most limiting factor is the program’s strict eligibility requirement: Only children who have a parent living legally in the U.S. are eligible to apply. Even if children are coming to join family members in the U.S., in most cases, the relatives do not have legal status, making those children ineligible for CAM.
“That was critical for political reasons,” Doris Meissner, former commissioner of INS, the precursor to ICE, CBP, and USCIS, and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, told VICE News. “But it meant that many people that might otherwise have qualified were ineligible from the start.”
A survey in 2016 found that less than 1 percent of children arriving at the southern border would have been eligible for CAM, in most cases because they didn’t have a parent living legally in the U.S.
For the most vulnerable children, who are facing immediate threats, waiting for the average 11 to 14 months for approval to come through is not a viable option.
“If someone is truly in danger for their life, an in-country process can’t be responsive to those kinds of minute-to-minute, emergency concerns—which is why people are fleeing in the first place,” said Meissner.
Genesis Martínez, 8, puts one last thing in her suitcase in March of 2020.
And even for children admitted under the CAM program, many aren’t allowed to stay forever. If a child doesn’t qualify as a refugee, meaning an immigration officer has decided they have a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin, that officer may grant them humanitarian parole. In that case, they must leave when that parole runs out, often after two years. In 2016, only half of the accepted applicants were granted refugee status. In 2018, the Trump administration codified a ruling that gang violence is not a valid reason to receive asylum, making it even harder for children seeking refuge.
“Unless they're willing to roll up their sleeves and really dig into these refugee claims, particularly in the context of gang violence, they're not going to improve access to asylum for those children,” said Odom.
No new applications
The reinstatement of the program will allow those who had applied before Trump’s cancellation, and were not yet accepted, to continue their applications, but it won’t accept new applications for now. The Biden administration has said it plans to improve and expand the program, but declined to elaborate on when or how.
Ultimately, said Meissner, the program sends a dual message. “It is an effort to help people,” she said, “but it is also an effort to put together aspects of deterrence.”
The Martínez family’s journey to the U.S. began in 2015, when Jesús Martínez first heard of the program that could bring his daughters to join him.
Martínez, who came to the U.S. in 2000, has Temporary Protected Status, which allows him to live and work in the U.S., so long as the Department of Homeland Security extends this protection. While he had previously been granted parole to visit his family in El Salvador, the Trump presidency made him no longer feel safe going back, fearing that he wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S.
When the girls’ mother died, they were left on their own.
So Jesús applied for the Central American Migrants program. Since living in the U.S., he had started his own trucking company.
“When I heard about this program, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It opened a little bit of hope.” He bought a house to fit his family. In the room his younger daughters would share, he painted one wall lime green, with an enormous pink castle, hearts on its walls and flags. He bought them a drum set and a keyboard. But his daughters didn’t come.
The girls’ backpacks, not yet packed for their journey to the U.S., in March 2020.
In 2017, the family received word from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which processed applications in El Salvador, that their arrival would not go ahead as planned. Trump had abruptly cancelled the program, and 2,700 already-approved children, some with plane tickets in hand, would not be allowed in.
The International Refugee Assistance Project sued the Trump administration, and a judge later forced the administration to continue processing. The girls had to re-do the steps they had already taken, going again for costly DNA tests, medical exams, and interviews with immigration officials.
Back in California, Martínez waited and worried. “Thinking about if everything is OK on the way to school, coming home, about drugs, about the maras,” he said, referring to Salvadoran gangs. “I worried about everything.” Meanwhile, some of Abigail’s friends had gone ahead and made the irregular journey on foot.
Finally, in March of 2020, they had a new flight reservation. But once again, the girls’ trip was stopped—this time because of COVID.
“We were waiting for a call from the IOM every day,” recalled Abigail.
Then, this March, a year after the pandemic halted their second flight, and six years after they first started the process, the four girls got that call, asking if they were ready to travel. A week later, they were in their new home in Bakersfield.
“The first few days, we couldn’t believe we were here,” said Amy. The girls are getting used to their new life. To Abigail, everything is different, and bigger: the food, the highways, the malls. Adriana is learning a few words of English. Because of the starts and stops in their planned journey to the U.S., they’d missed a lot of school. Abigail, now 18, will restart high school. Amy is learning English at a local community college and wants to become a dentist.
Adriana Martínez, 6, packs her bag the day before going to the U.S. to reunite with her father, in March 2020. The sisters’ journey would be cancelled because of the pandemic.
But, as in El Salvador, when they were waiting for their plane tickets to come through, it’s hard for them to think too far into the future. Since they were granted parole, and not refugee status, this new life isn’t permanent: In two years, the four girls will have to return to El Salvador, where they now have no parents waiting for them.
Ironically, had the Martínez sisters’ arrival not been delayed by Trump’s cancellation and the pandemic, they might already be facing removal back to El Salvador.
“I’m happy they can come over here with me,” said their father. “But I worry about what is going to happen. If in two years they say, you have to leave the country and go back to El Salvador, it will be harder than if they’d never come.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin American Reporting Initiative.