What is the Central American Minors (CAM) program?
The Central American Minors (CAM) program was established in 2014 by the Obama administration to provide children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have parents or relatives with legal status in the U.S. with a way to apply for protective status in the U.S. from within their country of origin. The program was terminated by the Trump administration in 2017. On March 10, 2021, the Biden administration announced that it was restarting the CAM program.
What is the purpose of the CAM program?
The program was meant to offer children fleeing persecution in Central America a “safe, legal, and orderly alternative” to traveling to the U.S. southern border on their own or with smugglers. It was also intended to stem an increase in unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in the spring and summer of 2014.
The number of children arriving at the U.S. southern border from the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — more than doubled from 20,805 in FY 2013 to 51,705 in FY 2014, overwhelming U.S. processing capacity and forcing Customs and Border Protection officials to house children in temporary shelters on U.S. military bases. The increase accompanied an increase in gang violence in the three Northern Triangle countries. Gang-related homicides increased in El Salvador by a factor of 10 from 2011 to 2014, more than doubling in 2014 alone. Honduras saw a 160% increase in gang-related homicides in 2014 and also experienced the highest murder rate of any country in the world that year. A majority of children seeking to cross the U.S. border came from the most violent regions of these countries and many told of being targeted for recruitment by powerful gangs. Those who resisted recruitment were subject to violence, including rape, kidnapping and murder.
Conditions for many children in Central America have continued to be challenging for the last several years. In early 2021, these conditions drove a similar increase in arriving unaccompanied minors at the U.S. southern border, prompting the Biden administration to restart the CAM program.
How does the Central American Minors Program work and who is eligible?
Ordinarily, those seeking asylum must apply in-person in the country of asylum. However, the CAM program allows parents of children seeking protection to apply while their children are still in their country of origin. The program makes use of a process known as the Affidavit of Relationship (AOR), which was created for refugees in the U.S. to apply for family members with pending refugee cases overseas. The CAM program developed an AOR process for parents from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who had some form of legal status in the U.S. to apply for their unmarried children under the age of 21 living in their home country.
In particular, parents with the following types of immigration status in the U.S. may apply for:
- Permanent Resident Status
- Temporary Protected Status
- Deferred Action
- Deferred Enforced Departure, or
- Withholding of Removal
Qualifying parents may apply for:
- Their children (genetic children, step children or legally-adopted children) who are unmarried, under the age of 21 and nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras
- Their adult and/or married children, provided they have a child of their own under the age of 21 and are nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.
- The child(ren) of the qualifying child
- The other parent or caregiver of the qualifying child
The program features two pathways for those seeking admission to the U.S.: refugee status and parole. The refugee status pathway requires the applicants to prove they meet the definition of a refugee under U.S. law. Under the refugee status pathway, beneficiaries are provided with case management support, financial assistance, and a pathway to citizenship in the U.S.
The parole pathway, by contrast, requires a determination from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that the “individual is at risk of harm, clears all background vetting, there is no serious derogatory information and someone has committed to financially support the individual while in the United States.” Unlike refugee status, parole status only grants the applicants admission to the U.S. and access to work authorization.
How many individuals have benefited from the Central American minors program?
Before President Biden restarted it in 2021, the CAM program was in place from 2014 until 2017. During that period, DHS received 10,500 applications and admitted 3,092 individuals to the U.S. as either refugees or parolees. An additional 2,500 were granted parole but were unable to travel to the U.S. before the Trump administration rescinded their grant of parole in August 2017.
Did the CAM program reduce apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the border?
Because it was in place for a limited period of time, the impact of the CAM program on the number of unauthorized border crossings of unaccompanied children remains unclear. Proponents of the CAM program were quick to hail its success when after its implementation in 2014, the U.S. saw a 45 percent decrease in FY 2015 of the number of unaccompanied children from Central America apprehended at the southern border. However, the number of apprehensions rose again in 2016, suggesting that the CAM program’s impact on border apprehensions might be limited. At the time that the Trump administration terminated the program in 2017, border apprehensions were down again to approximately 60 percent of 2014 levels.
Apprehensions of Unaccompanied Children at the Southern Border
Source: CBP Newsroom, Brookings
What are some of the criticisms of the CAM program?
At the time that the program was launched in 2014, immigrant advocates were concerned that eligibility requirements for the CAM program were too restrictive and did not cover many of the children fleeing persecution in Central America. There was also concern that the application process placed children at risk, at times forcing them to travel great distances for their interviews and appointments, travel which itself could potentially attract the attention of gangs.
In response to these criticisms, in 2016 President Obama rolled out a Protection Transfer Agreement with Costa Rica, which allowed the U.S. to transfer children and other CAM beneficiaries in need of immediate protection to Costa Rica to complete their applications for resettlement. However, the Protection Transfer Agreement was only in effect a brief period of time before the Trump administration ended the CAM program in 2017. The Biden administration has not yet indicated whether it plans to pursue similar agreements in the future.
What’s Next for the CAM Program?
On March 10, the Biden administration announced that it would restart the CAM program beginning March 15. The State Department announcement stated that the administration plans to reopen the program in two phases: (1) reopening all the cases that were pending when President Trump abruptly ended the program, and (2) accepting new cases under new guidance. The announcement also mentioned plans to expand eligibility for the program, although it did not specify what such an expansion would entail.
For the thousands of children and other family members of U.S. residents who have already benefited from it, the CAM program’s impact was undeniable. Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit organization which provides legal representation to unaccompanied migrant children, called CAM an “important lifeline for many Central American children at risk of persecution or other violence.” The steady increase in the number of applications over the life of the program indicated that qualifying parents felt the same. The program was also praised for the relative speed under which it was conceived and implemented. It was heralded as a successful example of taking an innovative approach to a novel immigration problem.
As Central America continues to struggle with cycles of violence, poverty, and gangs, children in the region continue to flee to the U.S. southern border seeking protection and to be reunited with family members already living in the U.S. The Central American Minors program demonstrates how protective status can be offered to vulnerable migrants without first requiring them to first make the dangerous journey to the U.S. southern border.
 In 2019, DHS agreed to reopen these parole cases, in a settlement to a 2018 lawsuit filed on behalf of CAM parolees who had had their parole rescinded.
The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Emily Linn, policy intern, for her extensive contributions to this fact sheet.