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Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is a harrowing journey for many Central Americans. More than 57,000 child migrants made that trip this year, and many report being physically and sexually abused. This month, the U.S. State Department launched a program to create a safe passage for some Central Americans. It would give Latino parents in the U.S. who qualify the chance to reunite with the children they left behind. From New York, Alexandra Starr reports.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Wilfredo Diaz left Honduras 16 years ago, just before the birth of his third child. As they've grown, his kids have begged him to bring them to the United States.
WILFREDO DIAZ: (Foreign language spoken).
STARR: I feel really bad - really bad when they say to me, Dad, take us, take us.
What makes it harder for Diaz is that his son, in particular, has been targeted by gangs. But Diaz decided long ago he wouldn't allow his children to cross the border.
DIAZ: (Foreign language spoken).
STARR: Some girls are used as prostitutes. I don't want that to happen to my two daughters, he says.
Now, though, there may be an opening for Diaz's children to join him. The Department of State has just launched a program that will allow some U.S.-based Central Americans to bring their children here. The mother or father has to be in the U.S. legally. Their kids must be living in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. The program will allow parents to request interviews for their children to see if they can qualify as refugees.
CATHERINE WIESNER: The definition for refugee status is relatively narrow, and it's a high bar.
STARR: That's Catherine Wiesner. She's a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of State. One of the major reasons child migrants have given for fleeing to the United States is to escape gang violence. That is often not sufficient to get refugee status. A benefit to qualifying as a refuge is that it puts you on a path to citizenship. But applicants who don't meet the refugee bar still may be able to come to the States. If they can show they face imminent danger, they might qualify for something called humanitarian parole. Getting paroled does not put you on a path to citizenship, but as Wiesner points out, it provides a way to come to the States safely.
WIESNER: You know, one of the most important things about doing this program in-country, to allow children to make these humanitarian claims in-country is that it avoids them taking this incredibly dangerous journey.
STARR: Parents who want their children to interview to come to the States will have to submit the request through organizations like Catholic Charities. Mario Russell is with Catholic Charities in New York. He thinks this new program acknowledges how bad things are in some Central American countries.
MARIO RUSSELL: The old models, I think, by which families were divided - that is to say that some children stayed in the home country, were raised by a grandparent - just don't work anymore because the conditions have become really unsustainable. And that's why, I think, they're leaving.
STARR: There are a lot of children in Central America who could show they're in danger. The fact that they need to have parents with legal status in the United States will cut down on applications. In this sense, Wilfredo Diaz is lucky. Sixteen years ago, he became eligible for something called temporary protected status, or TPS. TPS is for immigrants who are already residing in the United States when a natural or humanitarian disaster hits their country. Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras just a couple of months after Diaz arrived, so he's been able to live and work here legally ever since. He wasn't, though, allowed to bring his kids over.
DIAZ: (Foreign language spoken).
STARR: It would be an enormous happiness to have my children here, he says. The State Department launched the program earlier this month. Diaz says he will request asylum interviews for his kids before the end of the year. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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