United States announces new channels for legal immigration from Colombia and Guatemala

Washington will open centers in Central and South America to process applications. “The end of Title 42 does not mean the border is open,” warn top U.S. officials

Un grupo de inmigrantes, interceptado en Santa Teresa, Nuevo México
A group of immigrants intercepted in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, this week.PAUL RATJE (REUTERS)

Joe Biden’s government is turning the screw again on its immigration policy in line with the principle that inspires it: more legal channels of arrival and more difficulties for irregular immigration. This time it does so under the pressure of the legal expiration of the pandemic health emergency in the United States on May 11 and, with it, the so-called Title 42, which allows for the rapid return of immigrants.

The United States fears an increase in the migratory flow on the border with Mexico and on Thursday announced, on the one hand, more control measures and, on the other hand, the extension of legal migration channels to Central American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) and South America (Colombia). Among the new developments, Washington has agreed to establish immigration centers in the region, where between 5,000 and 6,000 applications will be processed and evaluated each month.

“We have an obligation to remove human traffickers from the process,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. “We are building pathways for people to get to the United States without having to rely on smugglers, but at the same time we are imposing consequences for those who do not use these pathways and migrate irregularly,” the official added in an appearance alongside Antony Blinken, Biden’s foreign affairs officer. Authorities have arrested some 10,000 human traffickers, or polleros, since April of last year.

Several administration officials warned that the end of Title 42 does not mean “the border is open.” The rule, first employed in 1929 to contain Asian immigration, was resurrected by President Donald Trump in March 2020 for health reasons, at the onset of the pandemic.

The Republican opposition, with Donald Trump at its head, accuses Mayorkas of being responsible for an “invasion” on the border with Mexico and immigration has become one of the focal points of the political debate in the United States. Immigrants are needed to fill the vacant jobs, but Republicans have created a discourse in which they try to identify them with crime.

The imminent end of the measure has strained the southern border of the United States. Authorities in dozens of towns bordering Mexico have held extraordinary assemblies to prepare for an increase in the arrival of migrants. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who leads the hardest wing of the Republicans in immigration policy, has informed this week that he will mobilize special groups of the National Guard to 33 counties to contain the flow, which could reach up to 18,000 illegal crossings per day.

On Thursday, officials explained that even if the measure expires, the United States will continue to expel people who arrive illegally based on Title 8, another piece of legislation that has helped regulate the border for Democrats and Republicans for decades. Blinken and Mayorkas have also pointed out that the Mexican government has agreed to take in as many as 30,000 deportees each month. Unlike Title 42, which allows re-attempting the crossing with few consequences, a Title 8 deportation imposes harsher penalties such as five years without re-entry into the country or the initiation of criminal proceedings.

Title 42 has made it easier to return those who cross the border without permission and are intercepted. Removals will continue to be carried out: “Individuals who enter the country and do not establish a legal basis to remain will continue to be properly removed,” a senior government official said. “We have no plans to detain families, we are going to use alternatives to apprehension,” Mayorkas specified about a rumor that the Biden Administration would use a tactic similar to the one employed by Trump.

The Biden Administration has been adopting different agreements to facilitate legal migration and, at the same time, close the door to undocumented immigrants. An initial agreement to process applications from Venezuelans was expanded and then extended to citizens of Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua thanks to an agreement with Mexico announced earlier this year. Officials have said these agreements have been helpful in decreasing the number of immigrants arriving at the border. “We have seen a high interest in these processes and a dramatic drop in encounters of these nationalities at the border. During March 2023 they dropped 23% compared to the same period last year,” Mayorkas said.

The model allows U.S.-based individuals to file an application on behalf of a citizen entering the U.S. if they can demonstrate that they have the means of livelihood or local support necessary to support themselves, which facilitates family reunification, for example. The petition had to be processed prior to travel through a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) application.

Spain and Canada

On Thursday, Washington announced that the program will also apply to citizens from Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In addition, the measures will be extended to nationals of Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, even if Title 42 expires. Officials of the Biden Administration have recalled that the United States has also reached agreements for Canada and Spain to take in some quotas of immigrants and that the new measures will facilitate this process to continue.

“A border-only approach cannot work. We have to work side by side with our regional partners and that is what we are doing in the framework of the Los Angeles declaration,” signed at the Summit of the Americas in June last year, a senior government official insisted. “As we have already said, we are going to establish regional processing centers in key countries in the region to facilitate many more legal avenues than before. We are cooperating on anti-smuggling initiatives with countries like Panama and Colombia. This is a regional effort,” he added.

“Today we are going to establish regional processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala, but we are in talks with other countries in the region,” said a senior official. For the time being, there will be existing offices and the aim is that later there will be specific centers dedicated only to this task.

They will examine whether people who want to emigrate to the United States meet the requirements of asylum, labor, family reunification or other programs and what alternatives are available to them. It will also provide information on the possibilities of emigrating to Canada or Spain, government officials have explained, assuring that there will be more details on how it will work in the coming weeks.

“We see this as a regional approach where we would make it easier for immigrants who want to come to the United States or go to other countries like Spain and Canada to stay where they are. Make an appointment and access a center. This is a historic step that we are very excited to be able to announce,” the senior official said.

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