SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A group of Central American immigrants has filed a class action lawsuit against the Trump administration over the secret termination of a refugee program that gave children fleeing violence in the region a path to reunification with their parents in the United States.
The plaintiffs, Central American immigrants legally residing in the United States and their minor children living in Central America, say racism against Latinos motivated the administration's 2017 decision to terminate the Central American Minors (CAM) program.
The June 13 complaint claims the administration shut down the program just days after Trump entered office in January 2017, but didn't announce the termination until August of that year.
The plaintiffs say the new administration immediately stopped interviewing program beneficiaries and froze their applications; stopped issuing decisions to applicants who were likely candidates for parole; and stopped scheduling the medical exams required for parolees to travel to the United States – all in secret.
Nonetheless, the administration continued to accept money from applicants, including $100 or more for medical exams and $1,400 for each child's plane ticket to the United States, the class representatives say.
The money hasn't been returned, despite the revocation of the plaintiffs’ conditional approval to travel to the United States, according to Daniel Asimow, who represents the class.
"These are thousands of families that expected their children would be reunified with them, kids in grave danger in the Northern Triangle countries,” Asimow said by phone. “To be told your child is approved for legal travel, that authorization is forthcoming, and to have the government go silent is devastating for these families."
The only recourse for the 3,000 young people whose conditional approval was revoked is to request review of the denial.
The plaintiffs' reviews have yet to be granted, however, raising fears that children who had been accepted as parolees will be permanently blocked from entering the United States.
Citing President Donald Trump’s racist statements made during the 2016 presidential campaign, the plaintiffs claim the "unprecedented, unexplained, and unsupported secret shutdown" of the parole portion of the program violates the Constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses.
"This administration’s highly erratic and unexplained termination of the CAM Parole program," the 46-page complaint states, "can only be understood as another one of this administration’s cruel and xenophobic policies against people it has publicly labeled 'animals.'"
The Department of Justice did not return a request seeking comment.
Established under the Obama administration in 2014, the Central American Minors program allowed legal immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - sometimes called the Northern Triangle countries - to bring their children fleeing violence to the United States as refugees or parolees.
The program was a response to the explosion in the number of unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle arriving at the United States' southern border.
Border Patrol apprehended about 50,000 children at the border the year the program took effect, up from 8,000 two years earlier, according to the complaint. Before then, Border Patrol had stopped just 4,000 unaccompanied children from these countries each year.
The plaintiffs, identified in the complaint only by their initials, include a teenage girl who was forced to drop out of high school just before graduation because she feared being raped or killed by an MS-13 gang member trying to forcibly "date" her; a teenage boy who has trouble walking and bathing after being beaten by MS-13 members; and a teenage boy MS-13 gang members are threatening with murder after shooting his uncle outside the boy's home.
Asimow is optimistic about obtaining a court order reinstating the parole portion of the program, noting several factors working in the class' favor: their reliance on the administration's representations that they could travel to the United States; the money they spent on the application process; and the program's secret termination.
"We have a strong case," he said.
Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have some of the highest child homicide rates in the world, according to the complaint.
Gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have created "semi-autonomous mini-states" there, facilitating gruesome acts of violence, much of it aimed at children.
Attacks on buses, abductions, gang rapes, and shootings occur each day in many neighborhoods, according to the plaintiffs. Gangs regularly try to recruit young children as members and sex slaves, and kill them when their efforts are rebuffed.
One Honduran city has reported regular killings of children under 10 years old and as young as two.
Asimow is with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer in San Francisco. The International Refugee Assistance Project in New York also represents the plaintiffs.
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