Central American refugees stopped by Trump, then by pandemic

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Photo credit A Salvadoran businesswoman, who is one of the applicants of a small refugee program that was shut down by President Donald Trump, shows documents of the many times she has reported robberies and extortions, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. She said she was terrified when she began receiving death threats in 2013. Men with tattoos would come to a car wash she used to own to demand "monthly compensation" for letting her operate. She says she has received many threats since — through calls, text messages and social media. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

MIAMI (AP) — After years of waiting in countries marred by violence, Central Americans who were finally cleared to reunite with their families in the U.S. are facing a major obstacle: the coronavirus pandemic.

Only about 338 — or 12% — of 2,700 people approved to come to the U.S. through a small refugee program have arrived since a court settlement more than a year ago, according to the latest government data. President Donald Trump has shut down the program, but a judge said those already cleared could travel.

After navigating legal snags and rigorous checks requiring they show they're in danger in Central America, the refugees faced more delays as the pandemic grounded flights, canceled interviews and closed clinics that conduct needed medical exams.

And when they finally do arrive, they have a temporary status they must keep reapplying for, face long waits for work permits they might not get and fear being separated from family as Trump cracks down on legal and illegal immigration.

“We feel that at any given moment, someone can knock at the door and say, ‘You are leaving,’” said Lupe, a 24-year-old Salvadoran who arrived in New York in July to reunite with her father after seven years of waiting. “There is a lot of anxiety that comes with that."

Lupe, who didn't provide her last name because she fears for relatives threatened by gangs in El Salvador, came to the U.S. through the Central American Minors program, or CAM.

Created by President Barack Obama in 2014, it allows parents in the country legally to request refugee status for their children who show they're in danger in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where gang violence and poverty is widespread.

The Trump administration shut down CAM in 2017 during a series of executive orders tightening immigration controls. U.S. officials say Trump's policies are designed to confront a surge of Central Americans seeking asylum and reduce claims that lack merit.

Families sued and a settlement was reached last year, with a U.S. judge in California ordering the government to resume processing those who had been approved for the CAM program when it was terminated. The judge said the government was causing harm by preventing the plaintiffs' children from escaping danger.

Lupe completed a medical exam for the CAM program in January, but the virus canceled commercial flights two months later. She waited four more months, until she could get on a repatriation flight primarily bringing American citizens and lawful permanent residents back to the United States.

“The pandemic delayed that a lot,” she said.

Now, Lupe wonders if she will be able to work to help her family back in El Salvador. U.S. officials decide whether to approve work authorization for people like her who come on humanitarian grounds, and there is a risk it could be denied.

Meanwhile, many are still waiting in Central America. Those who have cleared all the hurdles hope for space on a repatriation flight like Lupe. The pandemic also put fingerprinting appointments and interviews on hold, according to a quarterly report done by the U.S. government as part of the court settlement.

A 56-year-old woman who owns a boutique and a small car sales business in Santa Ana, in western El Salvador, has been trying to join her husband in the U.S. through CAM since 2016. The woman, who didn't provide her name because she says gangs have threatened her, got into the program when it expanded to include some relatives of people in the U.S. despite age.

Her daughter managed to join her father in Maryland in 2017 before Trump shut down the program. The Salvadoran mother hasn’t seen her husband in 20 years and got her hopes up when she was told to take her medical exam in January. But the clinic closed because of the pandemic. She finally was able to get an exam in late August and now awaits a travel date.

“I have felt very frustrated, very sad. I want to be with my family," she told The Associated Press by phone.

She said she was terrified when she began receiving death threats in 2013. Men with tattoos would come to a car wash she used to own to demand “monthly compensation” for letting her operate. She says she's received many threats since — through call