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A Tearful Reunion In LA As Biden Revives A Refugee Program Trump Had Canceled

Two young men pose for a selfie amid trees in a park.
Samael, right, who arrived from El Salvador last week, poses for a selfie with his younger brother Jonathan, who was raised in L.A.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)
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On a recent Friday afternoon, 25-year-old Samael lounged on the grass with his parents and younger brother at a park in North Hollywood, taking everything in. He’d just flown in to LAX two days earlier from El Salvador. It’s his first time here — and his first time seeing his family in person since he was 4 years old.

“I couldn’t imagine it, being able to be here, with them,” Samael said, his voice wavering with emotion.

In 2017, Samael was in line to come to the United States through the little-known Central American Minors Refugee and Parole Program, or CAM. The Obama administration started it in late 2014, as unaccompanied children and teens from the region began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in large numbers, fleeing gang violence.

The program allowed parents who were legally present in the U.S. to apply on behalf of their minor children under 21 living in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

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4:14
Biden Revives Program Allowing Some Central American Minors To Reunite With Family In The US

In Aug. 2017, the Trump administration announced it was canceling CAM. Samael and roughly 3,000 other youths had their cases closed — until this spring, when the Biden administration said it would revive and expand the program, and re-qualify young people such as Samael, who had aged out.

Last week, Samael became one of the first of these kids to make it to Los Angeles.

‘There Was A Lot Of Risk'

Samael’s parents left El Salvador in 2001, leaving him in the care of his grandmother.

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His parents had faced the same hard choices that many immigrants do: The economy in their country was suffering, and they needed to work. So they decided to head north.

They also realized that their two young boys’ grandmother could only care for one of their children — so they brought their infant son, Jonathan, with them, and made plans to send for Samael later on.

You always went out being afraid that they could assault you or rob you, or kidnap you off the bus, If they take you off the bus, they are going to kill you.

— Samael

But each time they considered it, they worried for his safety.

“We would think of how difficult it was to come, because there was a lot of risk,” said his mother, Marisol, who asked the family’s last name not be used because they fear for relatives back in El Salvador. “And there was no guarantee he would arrive.”

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She and her husband, Selvin, felt that if anything happened to Samael, it would be their fault — and they would never forgive themselves for it.

Samael Barely Avoids Getting Kidnapped

So the years passed. In El Salvador, Samael grew attached to his grandmother and his life there. In Southern California, Marisol and Selvin had a third child, a daughter named Steffany. Selvin found a good job as a truck driver and they sent money home, ensuring Samael had a good education.

They spoke with Samael often, trying to hold on to a sense of family. It was difficult, Selvin said.

“I can’t tell you that I got used to it,” Selvin said. “All the time that passed, and we were only with Jonathan and Steffany … it felt like we weren’t complete.”

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Jonathan, who was too young to remember his older brother, came to know Samael mostly by phone.

“I knew I had [a brother], but he just wasn’t close,” Jonathan said.

As Samael grew older, things in El Salvador changed. By the time he was a teenager, gang violence was driving kids like him to the U.S.-Mexico border, many sent here by their parents.

Samael said just going out or riding the public bus to school became nerve-wracking.

“You always went out being afraid that they could assault you or rob you, or kidnap you off the bus,” he said. “If they take you off the bus, they are going to kill you.”

Samael said once a stranger on the bus began asking him lots of questions, which unnerved him — then the man told him that he’d planned to kidnap him, but decided not to, “because I see that you’re a good boy.”

“That type of thing, you see it very often there,” he said. “Before I came here, in the area where I lived, there were two youths who disappeared. It’s so common there.”

‘It Was Like Seeing A Light’

Samael's parents were hearing reports of violence also, and grew ever more worried. It was around this time, about five years ago, that Marisol and Selvin heard about CAM.

“When we discovered this program, it was like seeing a light,” Marisol said.

The program was, and is again, open to parents who have legal status in the U.S. After reopening the program, the Biden administration expanded it: it’s now available to children’s legal guardians and to parents and legal guardians who are in the immigration system with pending applications, including for asylum and U-visas.

Selvin qualified to sponsor Samael because he has Temporary Protected Status, which provides renewable legal status to nationals of certain countries that have experienced crises such as war or natural disaster.

The family filed an application with the International Institute of Los Angeles, a local refugee resettlement agency. Things were looking up — then, four years ago, the Trump administration canceled the program. Samael’s case was frozen.

In the intervening years, some families in the program despaired, and sent their kids to the U.S. anyway, said Lilian Alba, vice president of immigrant and refugee services with the International Institute of Los Angeles.

606dfe9f61a57b000a817af1-eight.jpg
Young unaccompanied migrants watch TV inside a playpen at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility in Texas' Rio Grande Valley in March.
((Photo by Dario Lopez-Mills/POOL/AFP))

“Some did tell us that the children were either in detention or they had already arrived, as unaccompanied minors, because they couldn't afford to wait,” she said. “They couldn't risk having their children in their home countries longer.”

And for some families whose kids did not leave, the worst happened.

“We also heard from a couple of parents who unfortunately lost their children,” Alba said. “The children were killed by gangs. So that was extremely heartbreaking.”

Tens Of Thousands Are Newly Eligible

Samael and his family resigned themselves to hoping for the best. Meanwhile, he started college, paid for long-distance by his parents.

Then, in Spring — as Samael was finishing his degree — the Biden administration announced it was reopening CAM, and that young people whose cases had been closed would not be shut out.

Since CAM was reinstated in March, the federal government has reopened approximately 1,400 of the roughly 3,000 cases that were previously closed, according to the U.S. State Department.

The government began taking new applications last month; families must apply through a refugee resettlement agency. The State Department could not say how many new applications it’s received so far, but “we do know that tens of thousands of individuals are newly eligible,” a department spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Organizations that work with the Central American community are trying to get the word out that CAM is back, and direct people to resettlement agencies that can help them.

Salvador Sanabria, who directs the L.A.-based Central American immigrant aid group El Rescate, has been receiving some queries.

“The forced migration, it’s not going to stop with this program,” he said. “But it offers some parents or legal guardians living in the U.S. an alternative to the dangers, to the risks, of irregular migration.”

‘The Happiest Man In The World’

As Samael and his family waited in a park last week for Steffany to finish basketball practice, Samael put his arm around his dad, who was crying happy tears.

“I can’t explain with words the feelings that I have,” Selvin said, haltingly. “I am now the happiest man in the world.”

A family consisting of a mother, father, and two young adult sons poses for a photograph in a park.
Samael, far right, one recent afternoon in the park with his father Selvin (left), his younger brother Jonathan (top center) and his mother Marisol (bottom center).
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
/
LAist)

Now for Samael, it’s on to English classes and getting his work permit. He’s eager to put his newly-earned college degree in electrical engineering to use.

He’ll also be busy trying all the meals his family is planning for him. So far, Jonathan has taken him out for tacos, teriyaki, and In-N-Out burgers.

“He doesn’t like sushi,” said Jonathan as his brother agreed, shaking his head. “So I want him to try high-end Italian.”

For Samael, it doesn’t matter what they eat. He said in the months before he left, he was living on his own with a family friend, and his dinner company often consisted of YouTube videos and a cat.

“Now I sit down at the table with them and enjoy their company,” he said. “I’m very happy.”

What questions do you have about immigration and emerging communities in LA?