Washington.- As the Biden administration struggles to address a humanitarian and political crisis on America’s doorstep, it is increasingly focused on keeping migrants away from the U.S.-Mexico border by setting up immigration processing centers in Central and South America.
But the program got off to a rocky start as demand for appointments far exceeded supply, leading to periodic closures of the online portal and some countries limiting the number of applicants out of fear that the centers could lead to migrants abandoning theirs overflowing your own borders.
The centers in Colombia, Costa Rica and others planned in Guatemala have become a focus of the president’s immigration strategy, U.S. officials said, and the administration is already considering expanding the program to other countries in the region, including opening a similar office in Mexico.
The program, known as the Safe Mobility Initiative, is “the most ambitious plan I’ve ever seen,” said Sean García, deputy refugee coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, who has worked on migration for more than a decade.
But even some officials involved in the initiative admit it is a modest response to an enormous challenge.
More people have crossed the Darien Gap this year (360,000 at the start of the month) than in all of last year. And in August, about 91,000 families were arrested at the southern border of the United States after crossing the border illegally, a monthly record.
“The impact on migration through the Darien will be minimal or nil,” Francisco Coy, Colombia’s deputy foreign minister, said of the U.S. program. “Let’s be honest.”
Since its launch in June, the program has paved the way for about 3,600 of about 40,000 applicants to enter the United States, according to U.S. officials.
A National Security Council spokeswoman, Adrienne Watson, said: “It would take some time to develop the program to the scale we desire.”
Alex Díaz, his wife and their four-year-old son planned to board a ship in May to reach the Darien Gap, a brutal jungle area that connects North and South America.
They had spent about $80 on tickets but quickly abandoned their plans when they learned of a much safer way to get into the United States: the Biden administration’s new plan to open offices in several countries, including Colombia, where migrants like The Díaz family could apply for admission.
When online applications opened in June, Venezuelan Díaz quickly signed up for an interview. He hasn’t heard anything since.
The program is designed to provide legal entry to the United States for qualified individuals seeking refugee status, family reunification, or another temporary status called parole. It does not grant asylum, which normally must first be applied for at the U.S. border or at a port of entry.
With migration posing one of President Joe Biden’s biggest challenges and set to become a major issue in next year’s election, the administration is essentially moving the issue abroad by relying on Central and South American countries to do so impede. Migrants travel north.
Mexican authorities have intercepted foreigners entering Mexico from the south and prevented many from traveling to the U.S. border, even as the flow of northbound migrants appears to have increased in recent weeks.
After a pandemic-era public health order that allowed most migrants to be quickly deported expired in the spring, the Biden administration implemented rules intended to limit asylum at the border while expanding options for legal entry into the United States .
After a significant decline in border encounters, the numbers are starting to rise again. During Biden’s term, border crossings have risen to record levels, part of an immense global movement of people driven by poverty, violence and political instability.
While new programs involving multiple governments are sure to suffer setbacks, the Safe Mobility Initiative needs to be better managed and much larger to be effective, migration experts said.
“They don’t offer what you might call an alternative route; They may represent an alternative drip,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office for Latin America.