BALTIMORE (AP) — For years, Brian Mejia begged for his father's blessing to slip out of his village in El Salvador and make the perilous trek to the United States, away from the gang violence that drove his father across the border. For years, Gabriel Mejia said no, recalling his own days-long journey through the desert, his skin sore from the persistent pricks of cactus needles.
Gabriel Mejia could no longer stand the persistent bloodshed in his homeland, 15 years after arriving in the U.S., and was beginning to come around to the idea of sending a smuggler for his 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, Wendy. Then, they got word they wouldn't need to sneak in, thanks to a State Department program aimed at helping children reunite with their families on U.S. soil.
On Thursday night, Mejia and his wife, Virginia de la Paz Marquez, anxiously waited with the U.S.-born siblings their elder children had never met: 1-year-old Elias and 8-year-old Janet, wearing a sweater emblazoned with a pink heart. Mejia made faces at the baby; his wife fended off tears and bouts of nervousness as weary travelers streamed through the gate and down the stairs to baggage claim. Then, they were overcome as their years apart ended: Marquez alternated between laughter and tears as she embraced her son, then her daughter, both teens wearing an oversized tag identifying them as refugees.
Brian and Wendy are among the first six teenagers to travel legally to the United States under the Central American Minors program, said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director for the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee. The resettlement agency is submitting hundreds of applications on behalf of parents desperate to bring their children to America. However, there are more than 5,000 children and teens just like them who have applied but are still waiting to be contacted by the Department of Homeland Security. So far, only 90 children have been interviewed.
Critics say the program, which was established in December 2014 to offer a safe and legal alternative for children making the trek into the United States illegally, has so far done little to rescue children and young adults from pervasive violence in parts of Central America. They say the children who have applied otherwise have no protections in their home countries while they wait up to a year and a half for their applications to be processed.
Only parents in the U.S. legally can file an application for their kin, who must be 21 or younger, unmarried and living in one of the qualifying countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. (Gabriel Mejia had been granted legal status in the U.S.)
All three countries are plagued by gang violence; El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world. Over the summer, 677 people were killed in the span of one month. The country routinely sees 40 slayings in a single day. Mejia said his children often faced threats of physical violence in El Salvador, but added that they didn't share much about their experiences over the phone for fear of wiretaps.
Last summer, more than 60,000 unaccompanied children from those nations crossed the border into the United States, where some were detained and deported while others were forced to navigate a complex legal system with no guidance. Many of those children employed smugglers to help in their journey. Some children were abused along the way or sold into slavery; some did not make it to the border at all.
Chandrasekar said while the program is not a solution on its own, it will ultimately help some families reunite and offer relief to children experiencing violence. However, Chandrasekar said the State Department should expand the program to make more families eligible for safe, legal resettlement. For example, children whose parents are not in the U.S. legally are not eligible, and the program ignores the fact some children need to flee immediately.
"This is not an immediate solution for kids who are facing a credible fear of persecution," Chandrasekar said. However, the program does give children a right to apply for citizenship if they are granted special refugee status.
"What we would like to see, we'd like the State Department to strengthen the program so that parents living here with status can apply for their children as quickly as possible," he said.
State Department officials say they are preparing to interview roughly 530 children in the coming months for possible resettlement in the United States.
The program is "one small part of the U.S. government's approach to the Central American child migrant crisis," said Simon Henshaw, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. He said the program's initial slow pace is due in part to the fact that the majority of applications were submitted only in the past few months. Henshaw also said that of the 90 interviewed so far, only a handful expressed concerns about their safety.
"What it does do is it reunifies families, which is a bedrock principal of U.S. immigration policy," Henshaw said. "We're very happy to bring children out of danger and see this program continue."
For Mejia and Marquez, the program was a dream come true. But because of the program's glacial pace, Mejia said he wasn't always hopeful that he'd ever see his children again.
Mejia left their home village outside El Salvador's capital city in 2000, in search of more lucrative work opportunities in the U.S. Eight years ago, Marquez hired a smuggler and made the trek to join her husband, leaving the children with their grandmother. That decision haunted her.
"On many occasions I'd tell my husband I wanted to go back," she said as she waited anxiously by the airport gate for her children. "I told him it's not fair that I'm not experiencing what they're experiencing. But he kept saying be patient, be patient, there will be an opportunity for us. When we heard about the program I had faith, we believed something would happen, and now it is."