Thu. May 19th, 2022

One recent Friday afternoon, 25-year-old Samael lounged on the grass with his parents and younger brother in a North Hollywood park and took it all in. He had just flown in to LAX two days earlier from El Salvador. This is his first time here – and his first time seeing his family in person since he was 4 years old.

“I could not imagine being able to be here, with them,” Samael said and his voice faltered with emotion.

In 2017, Samael stood in line to get to the US through the little known Central American Minority Refugee and Probation Programor CAM. The Obama administration started it in late 2014 when unaccompanied children and teens from the region began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in large numbers and fled gang violence.

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

Biden revives the program so that some Central American minors can be reunited with their families in the United States

In August 2017, the Trump administration announced it canceled the CAM. Samael and about 3,000 other youths had their cases closed — until the spring, when the Biden administration said it would revive and expand the program and re-qualify youths like Samael, who was elderly.

Last week, Samael became one of the first of these children to come to Los Angeles.

‘There was a lot of risk’

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

His parents had faced the same tough choices that many immigrants make: the economy of their country suffered and they had to work. So they decided to head north.

They also realized that the grandmother of their two young boys could only look after one of their children – so they took their infant son, Jonathan, with them, and planned to send for Samael later.

You always went out and were afraid that they might attack you or steal you or kidnap you off the bus. If they take you off the bus, they will kill you.

– Samael

But every time they considered it, they worried about his safety.

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

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 hardly escapes being kidnapped

So the years went by. In El Salvador, Samael became 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 and made sure Samael had a good education.

They often talked to Samael and tried to hold on to a sense of family. It was hard, Selvin said.

“I can not tell you that I have become accustomed to it,” Selvin said. “All the time went by and we were only with Jonathan and Steffany … it felt like we were not complete.”

Jonathan, who was too young to remember his big brother, got to know Samael most by phone.

“I knew I had [a brother], but he was just not close, ”Jonathan said.

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

Samael said just going out or driving the public bus to school was nerve-wracking.

“You always went out and were afraid they might attack you or steal you or kidnap you off the bus,” he said. “If they take you off the bus, they will kill you.”

Samael said that once a stranger on the bus started asking him many questions, which made him nervous – then the man told him that he had planned to kidnap him, but decided not to do so, “because I can see, that you are a good boy. ”

“The kind of thing you see very often there,” he said. “Before I came here, in the area where I lived, there were two young people who disappeared. It’s so common there. ”

‘It was like seeing a light’

Samuel’s parents also heard reports of violence and became increasingly concerned. 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 with legal status in the United States Following the reopening of the program, the Biden administration expanded it: it is now available to child guardians and parents and guardians who are in the immigration system with pending applications, including whether asylum and U-visa.

Selvin qualified to sponsor Samael because he has Temporary protected status, which provides lasting legal status to citizens of certain countries who have experienced crises such as war or natural disaster.

The family applied to the International Institute of Los Angeles, a local refugee aid agency. Things looked up – back then, four years ago, the Trump administration canceled the program. Samuel’s case was frozen.

In the intervening years, some families in the program despaired and still sent their children to the United States, said Lilian Alba, vice president of immigrant and refugee services with the International Institute of Los Angeles.


Young unaccompanied migrants watch television inside a crawl space at the Donna Department of Homeland Security facility in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in March.

((Photo by Dario Lopez-Mills / POOL / AFP))

“Some told us that the children were either detained or that they had already arrived as unaccompanied minors because they could not afford to wait,” she said. “They could not risk having their children in their home countries anymore.”

And for some families, if children did not leave, the worst happened.

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

Tens of thousands are eligible

Samael and his family set out to hope for the best. Meanwhile, he started college, paid for long distance by his parents.

Then, in the spring – when Samael was finishing his education – the Biden administration announced that it was reopening the CAM and that young people whose cases had been closed would not be shut out.

Since the CAM was reinstated in March, the federal government has reopened about 1,400 of the approximately 3,000 cases 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 has received so far, but “we know well that tens of thousands of people are eligible,” a spokesman said in a statement.

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

Salvador Sanabria, who heads the Central American immigrant aid group El Rescate in LA, has received some inquiries.

“The forced migration, it does not stop with this program,” he said. “But it does give some parents or guardians living in the United States an alternative to the dangers, the risks of illegal migration.”

‘The happiest man in the world’

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

“I can not explain in words the feelings I have,” Selvin said stopped. “I am now the happiest man in the world.”

A family of a mother, father and two young adult sons poses for a photograph in a park.

Samael, far right, a 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



Now for Samael, it goes on to teaching English and getting his work permit. He is eager to take his newly earned university degree in electrical engineering into use.

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

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

For Samael, it does not matter what they eat. He said in the months before he left, he was living alone with a family friend, and his dinner party often consisted of YouTube videos and a cat.

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

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

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