Washington — The Biden administration on Thursday announced it will set up migrant processing centers in Latin America, increase deportations and expand legal migration pathways in a bid to reduce the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully.
The moves are part of the administration’s effort to reduce and slow migration to the U.S.-Mexico border, where officials are preparing to discontinue a pandemic-era policy known as Title 42 that has allowed them to swiftly expel migrants over 2.7 million times since March 2020 without processing their asylum claims.
Title 42 is set to end on May 11 with the expiration of the national COVID-19 public health emergency. Officials have made internal projections that migrant arrivals to the southern border could spike to between 10,000 and 13,000 per day next month.
In fact, unlawful border crossings have already increased in the lead-up to the policy change, especially in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, a senior U.S. official told CBS News. On Tuesday alone, Border Patrol recorded 7,500 apprehensions of migrants, a more than 40% increase from March’s daily average, the official said.
The brick-and-mortar processing centers announced Thursday will serve as regional hubs to screen migrants and determine whether they qualify for different options to enter the U.S. legally, including through traditional refugee resettlement, family visa programs, a sponsorship initiative for certain countries and temporary work visas.
The centers would be located in key choke-points in Latin America that many migrants transit through en route to the U.S. southern border, starting with Colombia and Guatemala. Senior administration officials said the U.S. is “in discussions” with other countries to expand the number of processing centers.
Migrants processed at the regional hubs will also be vetted for eligibility to remain in the hosting country or to be resettled in Canada or Spain, which have agreed to take referrals from the centers, according to the senior U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the plan during a briefing with reporters. CBS News first reported the establishment of the migrant centers on Wednesday.
During a joint press conference with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the regional processing hubs are expected to serve between 5,000 and 6,000 migrants each month.
“We are working with our regional partners. We are going after the smugglers. We are surging resources to the border. But we cannot do everything that we need to do until Congress provides the needed resources and reforms,” Mayorkas said.
The administration also announced on Thursday that it would expand a family reunification program that currently allows Haitians and Cubans to come to the U.S. once they have approved immigrant visa requests from family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
That program will be expanded to Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, allowing citizens of those countries to come to the U.S. under the humanitarian parole authority before their immigrant visas become available if their U.S.-based relatives’ requests to sponsor them for a visa have been approved.
To deter unlawful crossings after Title 42’s end, the Biden administration has been working to finalize a rule that would disqualify migrants from asylum if they enter the country illegally after failing to seek humanitarian protection in a third country they transited through on their way to the U.S.
Administration officials have argued the policy, which resembles a Trump administration rule, will discourage illegal crossings, and encourage migrants to apply for two initiatives it unveiled in January: a sponsorship program that allows up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to fly to the U.S. each month, and a phone app that asylum-seekers in Mexico can use to request entry at ports of entry along the southern border.
In a statement Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security said the number of weekly deportation flights to some countries would double or triple. A senior administration official said the U.S. is planning a “significant” expansion of fast-track deportations under a process known as expedited removal to impose “stiffer consequences” on those who enter the U.S. without authorization.
Once Title 42 lifts, the U.S. intends to continue deporting Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuleans to Mexico if they cross the southern border unlawfully, the official said. The deportations would be carried out under immigration law, instead of Title 42, and lead to deportees being banned from the U.S. for five years. If they attempt to cross the border after being deported, the official added, they could face criminal prosecution.
The Biden administration earlier this month also launched an initiative to speed up the initial asylum screenings that migrants undergo when they are processed under regular immigration laws, instead of Title 42. Migrants enrolled in the program are being interviewed by U.S. asylum officers by phone while in Border Patrol custody, a shift from the long-standing practice of waiting until they are placed in long-term facilities.
Earlier this week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it would be reassigning nearly 480 employees to help the 1,000-member asylum officer corps conduct these “credible fear” interviews, which determine whether migrants are deported or allowed to seek asylum, according to an internal notice obtained by CBS News.
The measures announced on Thursday also addressed concerns about the sharp increase in maritime migration in the Caribbean sea and Florida straits over the past year. The administration said it would be disqualifying Cuban and Haitian migrants from the sponsorship program launched earlier this year if they are interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard.
During the briefing with reporters, a senior U.S. official noted the administration is “fully cognizant that many of these measures are vulnerable to litigation,” saying the only “lasting solution” can come from Congress. Republican-led states are currently asking a federal judge to block the sponsorship program, arguing that the administration does not have the authority to admit 30,000 migrants each month outside the visa system.
The processing centers are part of a broader Biden administration campaign to enlist the help of countries in the Western Hemisphere to manage unauthorized migration — a commitment that 20 nations made in the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection during the Summit of the Americas in June 2022.
Earlier this month, the governments of the U.S., Colombia and Panama announced a two-month operation to curb migrant smuggling in the Darién Gap, a roadless and mountainous jungle that tens of thousands of migrants have traversed over the past year en route to the U.S.-Mexico border.
As part of planning related to Title 42’s end, U.S. officials have considered reinstating the practice of detaining some migrant families with children in detention centers, a controversial policy that the Biden administration discontinued in 2021.
Asked whether the practice would be revived, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas told CBS News during an interview last week that “no decision” had been made.
During Thursday’s press conference, Mayorkas said the administration had “no plan to detain families.”