WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is planning to expand a program to let would-be migrants from Central America apply for refugee status before they attempt to come to the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees will now conduct initial screenings to see whether migrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala may qualify as refugees eligible to come to the United States legally.

"I am pleased to announce plans to expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey many are currently tempted to begin, making them easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits," Kerry said in a speech at the National Defense University.

Later Wednesday President Barack Obama authorized the State Department to access up to $70 million from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund "for the purpose for meeting unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs related to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program."

In December 2014, the U.S. began offering refugee status to children in those countries who have parents already living legally in the United States. So far thousands of children have applied for the program but very few been approved to come to the U.S.

The latest effort is aimed at expanding that program by moving applicants, both families and single individuals, into safe zones to await processing.

Refugee processing for Central Americans was launched as part of a broader effort to curb the unprecedented surge of families and children traveling alone caught at the Mexican border in recent years.

During the 2014 budget year, more than 67,000 children were apprehended, along with more than 68,000 people traveling as families. The majority of immigrants in both groups were from Central America.

The flow of Central American children and families declined during the 2015 budget year, but border agents have noted significant rise in the numbers of immigrants from both groups in recent months. Since October, more than 16,000 children traveling alone and more than 20,800 people traveling as families have been caught.

The Obama administration has been trying for nearly two years to curb the flow of migrants from Central America, using a variety of public relations campaigns to warn would-be migrants that crossing the border illegally would not entitle them to stay in the United States. Until now the government had stopped short of calling such immigrants refugees.

Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled Thursday to discuss the migrant problem at a meeting with the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in that country's capital, where he is slated to attend the inauguration of the new president, Jimmy Morales.

Senior administration officials said the leaders would specifically review each country's plan to dissuade families, and particularly children, from making the dangerous journey, plans for facilitating their citizens' safe return and progress toward reducing violence, corruption and poverty. Some $750 million in aid appropriated by Congress is contingent upon the countries demonstrating progress on those fronts.

Annually the U.S. admits about 70,000 refugees from around the world. Obama has called for relocating about 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. this year.

The refugee program has come under fire from lawmakers who worry that that there are gaps in the security vetting process, though the focus of their concerns has been primarily on refuges from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has even called for a temporary ban on Muslim refugees being admitted to the United States.

Kerry said Wednesday that security is a top priority for the program.

"Let me be very, very clear. We can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to our best traditions as Americans by welcoming those in need of help to our great country," Kerry said. "That is who we are. That is what we do."

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Associated Press writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.

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