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Federal officials are rolling out a new refugee program that could reunite thousands of children facing danger in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador with their immigrant parents in the United States.

Officials announced the program with little fanfare in November, and it has taken time for the word to spread. Thousands of immigrants who have had temporary legal status for many years could be eligible to apply for the first time to bring their children to America.

The program could expand if President Obama wins a court battle over separate initiatives to grant deportation reprieves to millions more. Those initiatives suffered a setback Monday when a federal judge imposed a temporary injunction on the programs.

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Critics blast the refugee program for sidestepping Congress to create a family reunification program usually reserved for green card holders and US citizens.

But officials say the new program aims to prevent children from risking their lives to cross the border illegally, as thousands did last summer.

“We’ve established this program, frankly, it’s two-fold, to prevent children from taking this journey and to prevent the exploitation of their families by traffickers,” said Lawrence Bartlett, director of refugee admissions at the State Department, which is running the program with Homeland Security. “We think the smuggling networks are fairly robust and it’s to really guard against that and to really protect these kids.”

Under the new program, which started Dec. 1, children facing persecution back home may qualify for refugee status, putting them on a path to a green card, resettlement aid, and later, US citizenship. Children who fall short of the strict legal standard for a refugee, but are still at risk, will be considered for “parole,” an immigration status that lets them come to America but does not provide the other benefits.

In some cases, federal officials said, the spouses and grandchildren of immigrants with temporary status could be considered for admission if they face harm, though the program primarily is for unmarried children under 21.

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Nuria Montiel, an immigrant from El Salvador, said last week she plans to apply for her daughter, who was 5 when Montiel left to work in America in 2000. The next year, the US government gave Montiel and thousands of other Salvadorans permission to stay temporarily, after violent earthquakes struck their homeland. The government has since renewed the permission but has not allowed her to bring her daughter, now 19.

“I’m concerned about safety. I want to have her here with me,” said Montiel, who cleans bathrooms at Logan International Airport and sends $300 a month home, in addition to caring for her partner and two children who live with her in East Boston. “You can’t imagine how it is to be away from a child. It’s sadness, anguish. You don’t know if they’re eating, if something is happening to them.”

The refugee program, called the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program, or CAM, is one of a battery of controversial new immigration initiatives the White House unveiled in recent months after the House refused to take up a bill on illegal immigration.

But it remains perhaps the least known. Roughly three dozen people have applied since the program launched in December, federal officials said, and immigration officials conducted the first interviews with about 15 children this month in El Salvador. None have been approved so far.

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Even some advocates for immigrants were not fully aware of the program until federal immigration officials e-mailed a reminder last week.

“It’s a huge step forward in terms of preventing what happened last summer,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

She added, “It was surprising to see how big this was. The size, the significance of this is bigger than we thought.”

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente in East Boston, said children “are not just fleeing the poverty in Central America, but also the violence. The situation is you escape or you die.”

The number of minors taken into federal custody after crossing the border has roughly doubled each of the last two years — from 13,625 to 24,688, and to 57,496 last fiscal year, according to the Administration for Children and Families, which processes the children.

Most were from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, nations plagued by high murder rates, drug trafficking, and human smuggling. And most were released to parents or sponsors in the United States, including 1,500 children in Massachusetts from October 2013 through the end of last year.

Critics say the new refugee program would probably infuriate cities and towns such as Lynn, where officials have complained they lack money to care for the children who have already arrived. Some have health problems; others require extra help in school.

“I don’t think anybody has realized the scope of it,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports limits on immigration. “I consider it to be an abuse of executive authority because it’s creating a new family reunification program for people who came illegally.”

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Vice President Joe Biden announced the refugee program at a summit of Central American presidents in Washington on Nov. 14 — and federal officials say it is part of a broader multimillion-dollar effort to stem violence and human smuggling in the region. There is no end date, although it will be evaluated every year.

Under the rules, parents from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can apply for the refugee program if they have lawful status, which includes immigrants — such as Montiel — who have Temporary Protected Status, a status granted to tens of thousands of Hondurans and Salvadorans whose homelands were engulfed in natural disasters.

Parents also may apply if they are ever granted deferred action under a program Obama announced days after officials unveiled the refugee program. The program, known as DAPA, would grant temporary work permits to immigrant parents of American citizens and green-card holders. DAPA is supposed to launch in May, but it was temporarily halted by the federal judge’s injunction, as was the expansion of an existing program for child arrivals set to start Wednesday.

The refugee application is free, but parents can only apply for their children through nearly 350 approved refugee resettlement agencies, such as Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service, or Ascentria Care Alliance, formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of New England.

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After parents apply, children will undergo interviews with US Citizenship and Immigration officers in their homelands to ascertain whether they qualify as refugees — those who fear persecution because of race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or because they are in a particular group, such as gay people.

Children also must undergo DNA testing to prove their relationship to their parents.

Federal officials declined to estimate how many parents are expected to apply.

Officials said they expect to grant refugee status to a small number of children this fiscal year because the application process can take more than a year to complete.

But there is no fixed limit on the number of refugees and those given parole, an issue that has been a source of confusion about the program.

Said Bartlett of the State Department: “We’re staffed and geared up to really be responsive if we have a large interest.”


Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.