The U.S. government will launch a program in December to grant refugee status to some people under the age of 21 who live in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and whose parents legally reside in the United States.
U.S. officials say parents can ask authorities free of charge for refugee status for their children in the Central American countries, which are plagued by poverty and vicious gang violence. The program does not apply to minors who have arrived in the U.S. illegally.
Vice President Joe Biden announced the program Friday at the Inter-American Development Bank, where the presidents of the three Central American countries will present a plan to stem child migration from their countries.
U.S. officials said that children deemed refugees will be able to work immediately upon arrival in the U.S., opt for permanent residency the following year and for naturalization five years later. They did not say how long the process of receiving refugee status will take.
Central American children who meet the requirements will be part of a quota of 4,000 people from Latin America receiving refugee status each fiscal year, officials said. The U.S. quota of Latin America refugees currently consists of Cubans and Colombians.
Applicants who don't meet the requirements will be evaluated to see if they can be admitted conditionally under a non-permanent migratory status that allows them to work temporarily in the U.S.
Biden's announcement comes as President Barack Obama is poised to unveil a series of executive actions on immigration that will shield possibly around 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation, according to advocates in touch with the White House.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., criticized the plan, which he described as "government-sanctioned border surge" if Obama acts as expected.
"The policy announced today could open Pandora's box, allowing potentially even more people to come to the United States. This is bad policy and undermines the integrity of our immigration system," Goodlatte said in a news release.
The program aims to be a legal and safe alternative to the long and dangerous journey some Central American children take north to reach the U.S. and to reunite with their parents in the U.S. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied child and teenage migrants showed up at the U.S. border earlier this year.
On Wednesday, Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said the plan includes measures to stimulate economic growth, improve public safety, improve government agencies and provide better education and training opportunities.