At least some of the many young people making the dangerous crossing from countries south of the U.S. border are technically eligible for a green card -- eventually. As unmarried children of U.S. lawful permanent residents, they are in what's known as a "preference category" -- either 2A if they're under age 21, or 2A if they're over 21 -- meaning that they will receive a U.S. immigrant visa/green card only when a visa becomes available. And because of numerical limits on the visas that can be approved annually in these categories, this can mean a wait of many years.
Currently, according to the U.S. State Department's Visa Bulletin, the wait in category 2A is approximately 18 months, and in category 2B it's seven years.
This can be too long a wait for children trapped in an atmosphere of violence and social unrest. Unfortunately, without action by Congress, the number of visas and therefore the wait for an actual green card cannot be shortened.
But the Department of State (DOS) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have found a way to do an end-run around the law, and bring some children -- at least the ones under 21 -- into the U.S. legally, by establishing a so called "in-country refugee/parole program" in the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (The program launches in December, 2014.)
The idea of the program is to allow parents who are lawfully present in the U.S. (most likely with a green card) to request that their unmarried children under 21 who remain in one of the named countries be given access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. A child granted refugee status will be allowed to come to the U.S. and apply for a green card on that basis one year later. However, not all children from these countries will qualify as refugees -- they will still need to show that they were victims of individual persecution, among other things. A flight from generalized violence is not usually sufficient to support a refugee claim, as described in Nolo's article, "Asylum or Refugee Status: Who Is Eligible?".
But DOS and DHS are offering another option for children who are found ineligible for refugee admission but still can show that they are at risk of harm. They may be granted what's called "parole," which is essentially a temporary admission to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons. It isn't a green card, but it comes with a work permit, and allows one to stay in the U.S. legally while waiting for a family-based green card.
The program also offers the same benefits to the second parent, if he or she lives with the child in the home country and is currently married to the lawfully present U.S.-based parent.
Be prepared to prove all of the claimed family relationships, including by a DNA test to show a genetic link between parent and child.
The U.S. parent will also need to pay the cost of the child's travel to the United States, though not right away for children approved as refugees -- you can sign a promissory note for this. Children who receive parole, however, will not be granted such a travel-funds loan.
Who is not helped by this program? For starters, children over age 21, in category 2B, seem to have been left out. Also, children of undocumented persons cannot use it to ask that their children be brought to the United States. And married children do not qualify.
For more information, see the government's fact sheet of November 14, 2014, "In-Country Refugee/Parole Program for Minors in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras With Parents Lawfully Present in the United States."
And be warned: The program hasn't been launched yet, and once it is, the only way to apply for it will be in person, at a DOS-funded resettlement agency, which DOS promises can be found in more than 180 communities throughout the United States. That means that if you hear anyone advertising that they will help you apply for your children through this program, it's probably a scam.