By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Homeland Security terminated a program on Wednesday that allowed minors fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to settle in the United States, ending travel hopes for more than 2,700 children awaiting approval.
In a notice published in the Federal Register that goes into effect Aug. 16, the government said it was ending the practice of granting parole under the Central American Minors (CAM) Program, which was offered to children even if they had been denied refugee status.
The program started at the end of 2014 under the administration of former President Barack Obama as a response to tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking entry into the United States.
An executive order on border security signed by U.S. President Donald Trump days after he took office in January triggered a review of the program, putting on hold applications of more than 2,700 children who had been conditionally approved for entry into the United States. Now those applications will be canceled. The bulk of the children approved for the program were from El Salvador.
Immigration advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) said that cancelling the program would lead to more children to try to find other means to enter the United States.
"These children have been repeatedly told by the U.S. government, including the Trump Administration, not to migrate to the United States due to safety concerns," the organization said in a statement. "Now this Administration is cutting off the only authorized channel and leaving children no choice but to make the perilous journey to the United States."
The program allowed children under 21 years old with parents lawfully living in the United States to apply for a refugee resettlement interview before making the journey to the United States.
As of August 4, more than 1,500 children and eligible family members had arrived in the United States as refugees under the CAM program, according to the State Department.
Children who did not qualify for refugee status and had no other means of reuniting with their parents in the United States could also apply for entry under the program.
They would be approved for parole for two years, allowing them to travel and stay in the United States and apply for work permits.
Since its inception, more than 1,400 children were granted parole and allowed to travel to the United States. They included 1,110 from El Salvador, 324 from Honduras and 31 from Guatemala, according to a spokesman from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Now, they will have to re-apply for parole once their two-year term expires but will only be able to have it renewed if they can demonstrate "an urgent humanitarian or a significant public benefit reason" for them to stay, the federal register said. Parole decisions would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
More than 13,000 people have applied for the program since it began, the State Department said. Around 1 percent of applicants were denied both for refugee status and parole, according to the USCIS spokesman.
The refugee portion of the program will not be affected by Wednesday's termination and children stranded abroad can still apply as refugees.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Additional reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Editing by Marcy Nicholson)