February 23, 2024

Are the Biden administration’s ‘processing centers’ for migrants in Latin America doing any good?

In April, the Biden administration announced it would be opening “processing centers” in Central and South America to allow migrants to apply to come to the U.S. without making the dangerous journey to the southern border. The plan was to get the first centers open “within weeks,” officials told reporters, but so far none of the three centers that have opened appear to have successfully fostered legal travel to the U.S. for migrants seeking refugee status or asylum. 

Leaders of international nongovernmental organizations have pressed the Biden administration for answers on the status of the centers, now called “Safe Mobility Offices,” but so far have been met with vague answers from the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. They have been told, according to two NGO leaders, that the goal of building brick-and-mortar centers where migrants could make their case for refugee status or other protections has now shifted to setting up online portals.

“It’s really tough to grade success because we haven’t heard of any stories of people going through them,” a leader at an international NGO told NBC News, meaning the group was unaware of any migrants who may have applied via the centers and then been approved to live in the U.S. through refugee status or another legal pathway.

“Initially, you could go in person and show up without an appointment, but they are moving toward an online process,” the NGO leader said.

The NGO leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, argued migrants are better served when they can make their cases in person so interviewers can understand body language and tone of voice.

In April, a senior administration official told reporters on a call how the process was supposed to work. “Individuals will speak to specialists to be screened,” said the official, “and if eligible … they’ll be referred for refugee resettlement or other lawful pathways, such as parole programs, family reunification or existing labor pathways.”

Biden administration officials have routinely pointed to the promise of the new processing centers and other legal pathways, including an app that allows migrants to book appointments for asylum before arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, as among the factors that have discouraged physical migration and helped slash border crossing numbers. But if the reality of legal pathways does not meet the hype, some DHS officials fear migrants could become frustrated and decide to cross the border illegally, raising border numbers that have been down since May.

So far, there are Safe Mobility Offices up and running in Guatemala, Colombia and Costa Rica. The offices have registered thousands, according to the State Department, but the agency has given no numbers on how many migrants have actually qualified for resettlement in the U.S. or other countries. 

DHS referred NBC News to the State Department for comment.

“We are taking a phased approach to the launch of this initiative to provide services in an orderly and efficient manner,” said a State Department spokesperson. “This means the website may, at times, temporarily stop accepting applications.”

One senior DHS official said the agency has been frustrated with how slowly the State Department has rolled out the Safe Mobility Offices, and said the State Department has been reluctant to move resources from established refugee pathways in Africa and Asia.

A source familiar with the process said the State Department has run into hurdles while negotiating with countries where it wants to open more Safe Mobility Offices. In some cases, the countries have raised concerns because they’re worried about encouraging foreign nationals to pass through their territory, the source said. 

To accommodate that concern, the existing offices limit applications to specific nationalities and demographics. In Costa Rica, only Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who have been present in the country since June 12, 2023, may apply. Colombia’s office is open to Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans, while Guatemala’s office is open to nationals from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. 

The State Department said it will have more operational updates on the offices in the coming weeks.

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