One of the central pieces of the Biden administration’s immigration plan, which involves opening offices that admit applicants in Central and South America, has had difficulties.
Joe Biden’s government is having difficulties addressing the humanitarian and political crisis that is developing at the entrance to the United States. And a key and growing part of that effort is focused on keeping migrants seeking protection away from the Mexico-U.S. border through immigration processing centers in Central and South America.
These centers, located in Colombia, Costa Rica and others planned in Guatemala, are now a crucial element of President Biden’s immigration strategy, US officials said, and the government is already exploring opening offices in other countries in the region, including, Mexico.
The initiative, known as the safe mobility program, is “the most ambitious plan I have seen,” said Sean Garcia, deputy migrant and refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, who has worked in migration for more than a year. decade.
But the program has gotten off to a rocky start as demand for appointments far outstripped supply, leading to periodic closures of the online portal and some countries limiting the number of applicants for fear that centers would make arrivals of numerous migrants overflows its own borders.
Even some officials involved in the program acknowledge that it is a modest response to an enormous challenge.
This year, more people — 360,000 as of early September — have already crossed the Darien Gap than in all of last year. And in August, approximately 91,000 families at the U.S. southern border were arrested after crossing illegally, a monthly record.
“The effect on migration through the Darién is minimal or none,” Francisco Coy, Colombia’s deputy foreign minister, said of the U.S. program. “You have to be frank.”
Since its launch in June, the program has put about 3,600 migrants out of about 40,000 applicants on track to be allowed into the United States, according to U.S. officials.
A National Security Council spokeswoman, Adrienne Watson, said “it would take time to develop the program to the scale we want.”
“We are ensuring that services are provided in an orderly and efficient manner, while at the same time we can improve processes,” he added.
Alex Díaz, his wife and their four-year-old son were about to board a ship in May to reach the Darien Gap, a brutal expanse of jungle that connects North and South America.
They had spent about $80 on tickets, but soon changed their plans when they learned of a much safer option to try to reach the United States: a new plan by the Biden administration to open offices in several countries, including Colombia, where migrants, like the Díaz family, could apply for entry.
Once online applications opened in June, Díaz, who is Venezuelan, quickly signed up for an interview appointment.
He hasn’t heard anything since.
The program provides legal entry into the United States for qualified individuals seeking refugee status, family reunification or another temporary status known as parole. It does not provide asylum, which generally must be requested once inside the U.S. border or at a port of entry.
With migration one of President Biden’s most complex challenges and emerging as a major issue in next year’s elections, his administration is essentially externalizing the problem by relying on Central and South American countries to prevent migrants from migrants begin the journey north.
Mexican authorities have been intercepting migrants crossing into Mexico from the south and preventing many from traveling to the border with the United States, however, in recent weeks, the migratory flow north appears to be increasing.
Colombia has accepted 2.5 million Venezuelan immigrants in recent years and, with American help, has granted residence permits, although many migrants have left the country due to lack of economic opportunities.
Following the expiration in May of a pandemic-era public health order that allowed for the quick deportation of most migrants, the Biden administration introduced rules designed to restrict asylum at the border, while expanding legal avenues for enter the United States.
After a significant drop in border encounters, numbers have begun to rise. Illicit crossings have increased to historic levels during Biden’s term, part of a massive global displacement of people driven by poverty, violence and political instability.
Díaz, 28, arrived in Colombia from Venezuela in 2017 looking for work to pay for his wedding to his fiancée, Beatriz.
When economic conditions worsened in Venezuela, he decided to stay in Colombia, but struggled to gain a foothold in the small border town where he had settled. He worked as an informal vendor and was briefly homeless before moving to Bogotá, the capital.
Over time, Beatriz joined him, and they had a son. They both work part time—Díaz in a printing shop and his wife as a substitute teacher—but they are only called in when necessary.
They both struggle to pay for food for their son, who is malnourished and must gain weight to undergo tonsil removal surgery, which doctors say he needs.
The couple has long dreamed of starting a business in the United States, and if Díaz doesn’t hear back about an appointment at an immigration processing center, he said he will try, once again, to cross the jungle.
The online portal for scheduling appointments in Colombia, which opened its registration onJune 28th, closed after just one day. The portal was supposed to close after receiving 3,000 requests, a State Department official said, but in the first 12 hours it was overwhelmed with more than 5,000 requests. It reopened briefly in August and took in another 5,000 more.
Last month, two centers opened in Medellín and Cali, the second and third largest cities in the country. A third center will soon open near Bogotá.
One of the main concerns of the United States and other countries during negotiations over the program was that the new offices would attract many migrants, according to Colombian and American officials.
To discourage mass displacement, officials imposed strict rules. The offices do not accept walk-ins and are limited to certain nationalities. The program in Costa Rica is open to Venezuelans and Nicaraguans who were in the country before June 12, while in Colombia it is reserved for Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans who were in the country before June 11.
Initially, the Guatemalan government stated that it would accept applicants from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, but has restricted it to only Guatemalans.
“We will not allow any type of massive or irregular flows or caravans,” said Mario Búcaro, Guatemala’s foreign minister, in a video interview distributed to journalists in June. “They are always motivated by criminal groups that try to destabilize the sovereignty of countries.”
Some applicants, in addition to stating that they did not receive any follow-up after registering for the program, said that the requirements were unclear and that applicants in the three main cities where offices have opened, or will open, were contacted before people who had submitted applications first.
U.S. officials said they were trying to reduce the number of cases in big cities while figuring out how to reach applicants outside them.
“We are committed to making sure everyone has the opportunity to do this,” Garcia said.
While new programs involving various governments will surely experience setbacks, the safe mobility program must be better managed and much larger to be effective, migration experts said.
“They are not offering what could be called an alternative route; They are offering an alternative trickle, perhaps,” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Migrants “are going to tell everyone they know that this was a total waste of time” if they don’t receive faster responses from program administrators, he said.
Andreina Cardozi, 33, who left Venezuela five years ago, lives in the mountain town of Pereira, where her husband works seasonally on a coffee and banana farm. But when the harvest runs out, so do their salaries and they have to make efforts to support their three young children.
She applied to the U.S. immigration program the day it opened online, but said she got no response. Some friends of his crossed the Darien Gap and managed to enter the United States.
She plans to follow the same route soon.
“I would also like to go and see if my life changes,” he said. “The truth does scare me, but in the name of God I am going to take the risk because I have no other possibility.”
Jody García contributed to the report from Guatemala City.
Jody García contributed to the report from Guatemala City.