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Why Is the Obama Admin Expanding the Central American Refugee Program?

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures while giving a foreign policy speech at National Defense University in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The Obama administration is planning to expand a program to let would-be migrants from Central America apply for refugee status before they attempt to come to the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry said. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. would “expand” its “refugee admission program in order to help vulnerable families and individuals from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.”

But what exactly does this mean? Here are three important facts on the issue:

1) Who qualifies as a refugee?

A refugee has a specific definition under U.S. law as someone who:

Is located outside the United StatesIs of special humanitarian concern to the United StatesDemonstrates that he was persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social groupIs not firmly resettled in another countryIs admissible to the United States

This definition parallels the international definition of refugee. Based on this definition, it does not appear that most looking to enter the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras qualify for refugee status.

While there is terrible and endemic violence in these regions, this does not equal persecution based on race or religious beliefs.

2) What did the State Department “expand”?

The State Department expanded who can apply for refugee status while still in his home country. In 2014, the administration first opened up this process for children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, who have parents legally in the U.S.

The State Department is now allowing anyone to apply for refugee status to the U.S. from within his home country. Typically, refugees are outside their home country when they apply, but the U.S. is making an exception for those from the three countries within the Northern Triangle.

The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) is also going to be involved in handling and assisting those who would like to apply for refugee status. While the UNHCR will now play a role in accepting refugee applications, it is up to the U.S. to ultimately make the determination.

3) Will the U.S. be accepting more refugees from Northern Triangle nations?

The evidence currently available points to “no.”

The State Department sets a cap on refugees every year and divides that number across the different regions of the world. All of Latin America and the Caribbean has a quota of 3,000 in fiscal year 2016, only slightly higher than the 2,050 accepted in fiscal year 2015 but lower than the 4,318 that arrived in fiscal year 2014. While the administration can change these caps if it wants, so far it has stated that it does not intend to. Off-the-record statements by administration officials calling for as many as 9,000 refugees a year from Northern Triangle countries potentially paint a different picture.

Importantly, because most of the victims of violence in the Northern Triangle do not qualify as refugees under our law, the U.S. would have to weaken its refugee definition to…

 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.
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