US to open Latin America migration centres, expedite deportations

Group calls move to address an expected spike in border crossings a ‘Faustian bargain’ as COVID-19 expulsion rule ends.

Biden border
Migrants and asylum seekers who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States wait next to a wall where US Border Patrol agents stand guard [Fernando Llano/The Associated Press]

The United States will open immigration processing centres in Colombia and Guatemala and expedite the deportations of those seeking to irregularly enter the country, as officials prepare for an increase in border crossings following the expiration of a controversial COVID-era rule.

Speaking on Thursday, US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the planned measures, which they said were aimed at discouraging people from travelling to the US border after the expected expiration of Title 42 on May 11.

The controversial COVID-19 health policy, implemented in March 2020, had allowed US authorities to expel people who crossed the border irregularly without offering them the opportunity to seek asylum. Human-rights monitors have charged that the measure violated international law.

Immigration rights groups have both applauded and condemned portions of the latest measures, with some comparing their restrictions to those imposed under former US President Donald Trump.

For his part, Sunil Varghese, policy director at International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), said the expansion of pathways for asylum seekers to enter the US was “long overdue”.

“But we cannot ignore that the Biden administration is proposing a Faustian bargain by simultaneously seeking to implement a Trump-era asylum ban at the US-Mexico border, effectively slamming the door shut on countless others in need,” Varghese said in a statement.

Speaking on Thursday, Mayorkas said that “expedited removal will begin” on May 12 for those who cross the border “without having first taken the legal pathway to entry”.

Those expulsions would also apply to families crossing the border, he said. Those expelled would also be banned from re-entering the country for five years, unlike under Title 42, which did not prevent asylum seekers from attempting re-entry.

“Those who arrive at our border and do not have a legal basis to stay will have made the journey, often having suffered horrific trauma and having paid their life savings to the smugglers, only to be quickly removed,” he said. “They will be removed most often in a matter of days.”

Meanwhile, the US will deploy special asylum officers to the new refugee centres in Guatemala and Colombia. Mayorkas said those agents “will interview applicants for the US refugee admissions programme and provide the swift processing of a greater number of individuals”.

Individuals may also be screened at the centres to pursue additional pathways to the US or to other countries where they may be eligible, including Canada or Spain. Mayorkas added the US is in discussions with other countries to expand the programme.

The centres are being launched with the US Department of State and will be run by international organisations, the officials said.

In response to a question on Thursday, Blinken denied that the centres amounted to the US outsourcing its border enforcement.

“The point here is to do the following: to take advantage of the fact that international partners have physical locations in a number of countries where they’re doing very very important work and to be able to bring some of our own officers and experts into these centres so that people can come to them and explore whether they’re eligible for one of the various legal pathways to come to this country,” Blinken said.

The officials also announced the expansion of programmes that allow certain US residents and citizens to apply for family members to be relocated to the US more quickly.

The changes come in the wake of a new policy, announced by the administration of US President Joe Biden in January, that allows as many as 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans into the US each month if they meet certain pre-approvals.

Rights groups, however, condemned part of the plan that allowed authorities to turn away people from those countries seeking asylum via irregular entry.

They also criticised the requirements for legal entry as being too cumbersome for many refugees: Applicants are required, for instance, to show they have a sponsor in the US who can support them financially.

Mayorkas on Thursday also said the administration has “no plans” to resume the controversial practice of detaining families who crossed the border, which Biden had ended upon taking office amid vows to take a more “humane” approach to migration.

Mayorkas said the administration would continue to use “the full spectrum of our alternatives to detention programmes”, which have included monitoring families via ankle bracelets and other forms of supervision.

Republicans have regularly targeted an uptick in border crossings after Biden took office in 2021. On Thursday, Republicans in the US House of Representatives were set to introduce their own version of a border security package that they expect to bring to the chamber floor in May.

The issue is likely to loom large in the 2024 presidential election, with Biden announcing earlier this week that he would run for a second term.

Source: Al Jazeera