Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press
Light is reflected on Sara Ramirez, of Gaithersberg, Md., as she rallies for comprehensive immigration reform outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. "I've worked as a community organizer and I've seen the pain of the families," says Ramirez, who is originally from Guatemala, "their pain is immense." The U.S. government will launch a program in December to grant refugee status to some minors under the age of 21 who live in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and whose parents legally reside in the United States.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government will launch a program in December to grant refugee status to some minors under the age of 21 who live in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and whose parents legally reside in the United States.

U.S. officials say parents can ask authorities free of charge for refugee status for their children in the Central American countries, which are plagued by poverty and vicious gang violence. The program does not apply to minors who have arrived in the U.S. illegally.

Vice President Joe Biden is set to announce program later Friday at the Inter-American Development Bank, where the presidents of the three Central American countries will present a plan to stem child migration from their countries.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the program's formal announcement, said that children deemed refugees will be able to work immediately upon arrival in the U.S., opt for permanent residency the following year and for naturalization five years later. They did not say how long the process of receiving refugee status will take.

An official said the Central American children that meet the requirements will be part of a quota of 4,000 people from Latin America receiving refugee status each fiscal year. The U.S. quota of Latin America refugees currently consists of Cubans and Colombians.

Applicants who don't meet the requirements will be evaluated to see if they can be admitted conditionally under a non-permanent migratory status that allows them to work temporarily in the U.S.

The program aims to be a legal and safe alternative to the long and dangerous journey some Central American children take north to reach the U.S. and to reunite with their parents here. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied child and teenage migrants showed up at the U.S. border earlier this year.

Biden's announcement comes as President Barack Obama is poised to act soon to unveil a series of executive actions on immigration that will shield possibly around 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally from deportation, according to advocates in touch with the White House.

Biden was not expected to announce any additional funds to support the Central American initiative, which will focus on the communities of origin of many of the children heading to the United States, officials said. Central American officials have not provided the expected cost of the plan. Officials said U.S. cooperation with Central America currently amounts to $600 million a year.

On Wednesday, Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez said the plan includes measures to stimulate economic growth, improve public safety, improve government agencies and provide better education and training opportunities.

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