E.g., 04/13/2024
E.g., 04/13/2024
Regional Processing Centers: Can This Key Component of the Post-Title 42 U.S. Strategy Work?
Photo of a mural at Las Americas, a legal assistance nonprofit in El Paso, Texas
Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh

Editor's Note: At the writing of this commentary, the term 'Regional Processing Center' was most frequently used. Subsequent to publication, governments and others have settled on the term 'Safe Mobility Office'. In all cases, here the use of Regional Processing Center is equivalent to Safe Mobility Office.

The Biden administration has set the stage for a dramatic rethink of the U.S. approach to migration management at the U.S.-Mexico border and within the broader Western Hemisphere. The approach for when the Title 42 border expulsions policy is lifted on May 11 has three central tenets: (1) identifying more of those with humanitarian protection needs before they reach the border; (2) expanding access to lawful pathways for legal entry, including employment-based visas, family reunification, and sponsorship; and (3) creating a more orderly process at the border itself that restores credibility in the immigration system.

Central to this strategy is the idea of standing up Regional Processing Centers across Latin America (subsequently renamed Safe Mobility Offices, or SMOs) that will help identify people with protection needs and provide information and processing assistance to access legal pathways to the United States and other countries. These centers are designed to take pressure off a border witnessing increasingly hemispheric flows, at a time when the U.S. government will be restricting some access to asylum and becoming much more consistent in returning some would-be migrants to countries of origin. They are also designed to cut smugglers out of the equation by giving people access to protection and legal pathways earlier in their migration journey, and eventually before they cross international lines at all.

The idea of bringing protection closer to where people live and providing comprehensive information about legal pathways has been around for a while, and the administration had even floated this approach in more limited forms before. But the concept did not gain traction until the April 27 announcement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas laying out the process after Title 42, and little is known as yet about how these centers will function in practice. They likely will be run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and funded by the U.S. government, with multiple locations across countries in the hemisphere, starting in Colombia and Guatemala.

How might these centers function over time? They will only exist in embryonic form, if at all, by the time Title 42 ends. In fact, much of what will happen in the immediate post-Title 42 aftermath will focus on enforcement and on trying to prevent a sudden surge in border arrivals during the next few months. Even with announcement of the first centers, it is almost certain that non-enforcement elements of the longer-term strategy will be underdeveloped and insufficient initially.

But Regional Processing Centers could become a meaningful element of a broader strategy in a post-Title 42 era over time. Whether they succeed, however, requires taking a far longer view and assessing their effectiveness on May 12, 2024 rather than May 12, 2023. For the administration’s strategy to be successful, at least three key elements will need to come into place over time.

Element One: Humanitarian Protection

The centers can play a key role in determining protection needs and referring individuals requiring protection initially for refugee resettlement in the United States, Canada, and possibly Spain. Over time, protection pathways in other countries may come into play, and the centers might also play a role in prescreening potential applicants for asylum, to provide them with expedited appointments at ports of entry in the United States or other countries.

To do this, there would have to be multiple centers in several countries across the hemisphere, and these would have to be deeply networked with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), local government agencies, and consular authorities to identify those with priority protection needs that cannot be met within those countries. It will be important to attract and maintain regional governments’ interest in establishing and promoting these centers.

Initially, the centers are intended to channel people for refugee protection in the United States and Canada. U.S. policymakers have indicated that they believe processing can be expedited to keep wait times to a few months, not years, and that they can develop ways to protect vulnerable people during the waiting period. Much remains to be known about these processes, but this would be a major step forward for both countries to deliver on their long-stated commitments to expand refugee resettlement from the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. government has indicated that it will double resettlement from the hemisphere over the next year, while the Canadian government recently pledged to receive an additional 15,000 migrants through humanitarian pathways.

Eventually, these centers will almost certainly need to have the ability to prescreen potential applicants for asylum and either refer them for asylum appointments at U.S. ports of entry or parole them into the United States to pursue affirmative asylum claims inside the country, since refugee resettlement is likely to be too limited. But these options will have to develop over time.

Under a proposed rule issued on February 21 that is likely to be promulgated as a final rule as Title 42 ends, applicants for asylum will require appointments at ports of entry, while individuals encountered crossing between ports of entry will face a presumption of ineligibility for asylum (with a high barrier for receiving other protections). That system, which will require getting an appointment through the CBP One app, will remain a major draw to northern Mexico because the app only works north of Mexico City. As a result, the government will almost certainly have to consider how the Regional Processing Centers can eventually be used to prescreen people for asylum as well as refugee processing. This may present some legal issues that need to be worked out, but would significantly broaden access to protection while avoiding continued pressure on northern Mexican cities and on the border itself.

If done well, regional processing of protection claims has some clear advantages. It can both reduce migration pressures and help identify those with protection needs before they hire a smuggler and flee. However, much remains to be seen about how broad these protection pathways will be, whether they will have the capacity to effectively identify those with protection needs, and whether they can keep safe during the process those who need protection. And these centers will face challenges dealing with multiple nationalities until they are established in more countries, allowing them to address specific needs for those from the same country where the center is located or a neighboring one.

Taken together, this represents a shift in approach to identifying people with protection needs closer to where they live (or in the first country they have fled to), rather than after a long and dangerous multi-country journey that almost always requires hiring a smuggler. And it might eventually help lead to other more concerted efforts to develop in-country protection systems in some countries as well, as a first option for those who do not need protection abroad.

Whether this turns out to be a workable system depends on coverage and reach within countries of the region, the number of beneficiaries, and the ability to process cases in a reasonable timeframe while keeping applicants safe. Providing concrete results and protection will also foster migrants’ trust in the system, which is fundamental in reducing irregular migration. And it will also help convince governments in the hemisphere to want to host the centers and to see them as a useful tool for creating orderly movement and effective protection, rather than a draw for potential migrants who might then become stuck in their country.

Finally, regional processing can be a helpful addition to existing asylum systems but not a substitute. There will always exist the need for a mechanism to handle the cases of spontaneous border arrivals of those who are fleeing imminent danger.

There are legitimate questions about whether the February proposed asylum rule, if implemented as initially outlined, would provide sufficient opportunities for those with legitimate claims to present them. This could remain a major problem even if Regional Processing Centers eventually begin screening applicants for asylum.

Element Two: Legal Pathways

A large part of the recent surge in hemispheric migration flows to the United States is related to the mismatch between the demand for labor in the tight U.S. labor market and the relatively sluggish growth in some countries in the Americas that suffered long-term economic damage during the recent global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This mismatch has accentuated the economic imbalances that already existed in the hemisphere, and the situation has been further complicated by a series of displacement crises in recent years in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba. The existing legal pathways to move from countries in the region to the United States are far too few to accommodate either the U.S. demand for labor or the number of people who are likely to try to move north. Legal pathways can play a crucial role in channeling at least some unauthorized migration into legal migration that provides certainty for employers, migrants, and public authorities alike.

The administration has already made significant attempts to expand the pathways that exist within the current legislative framework, but the key innovation in the Regional Processing Centers concept is to provide information and processing capacity for some of these options, initially in the United States, Canada, and Spain, and perhaps eventually to other countries. It remains to be seen how well this will function in practice, especially given the heterogeneous nature of the different programs, the varied mechanisms for applying, and what different nationalities are eligible for. But the idea of consolidating such capacity under one roof and providing clear information, and even help in processing applications, could be useful.

The principal pathways include:

  • Family reunification for those with immediate relatives who have permanent residence or citizenship in the United States, including special parole programs (some of them announced recently) for those with approved applications. This may speed up the entry process for nationals of Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras.
  • H-2A and H-2B seasonal worker visas for Colombians, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Haitians, Hondurans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans, which have been expanding gradually in numbers, especially in Central America and Mexico.
  • Special parole program for nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who have a U.S. sponsor and a valid passport, and can fly to the United States.
  • Restored visa processing in Cuba, including a return to the mid-1990s U.S. commitment to legally admit at least 20,000 Cubans yearly (not including immediate family members of U.S. citizens).
  • Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker Visas for citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and other countries, and Canada’s emerging Economic Mobility Pathways Program for those who have protection needs and needed skills.
  • Spanish seasonal worker visas (and other mobility programs) for citizens of Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries.

These amount to a significant expansion in legal pathways over what existed two years ago, even though they fall short of what is needed and have uneven criteria, eligible nationalities, and application processes. Still, creating a broader understanding of what pathways exist and how to apply for them through the Regional Processing Centers would be a step forward and make the process much easier eventually for potential migrants.

Element Three: Border Management

The success of the regional approach depends in part on having clear and consistent processing and enforcement outcomes at the U.S.-Mexico border, which create incentives for people to use the Regional Processing Centers as viable avenues for protection and legal pathways for entry. An enforcement-only approach cannot succeed. Effective enforcement requires a workable humanitarian protection system, as has been demonstrated by repeated surges at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014, 2016, 2019, 2021, and 2022—all of which were comprised of significant populations seeking protection.

An asylum system that can make fair and timely decisions for those who apply at the border (or inside the country if would-be asylum seekers are paroled in) is particularly critical to the success of migration management, as colleague Doris Meissner has argued. Yet the new protection architecture and accompanying expansion of legal pathways also depend on consistency, predictability, and transparency in border enforcement.

The strategy proposed by the administration seeks to provide protection closer to home and expand access to legal pathways, but it also is aimed at bringing down the number of unauthorized entries at the border itself, which has been undermining the credibility of the U.S. immigration system in the eyes of key segments of the public. If this strategy succeeds, it could eventually help return the U.S. immigration policy debate to a more balanced consideration of future workforce needs and provision of legal status to those immigrants already living in the country without it. However, bringing unauthorized entries down will require reasonable access to legal pathways and humanitarian protection before migrants reach the border itself, which is the central purpose of the Regional Processing Centers.

Making a Strategy Real

The design of the recently unveiled post-Title 42 border management system largely makes sense on paper and is the clearest strategy yet that the Biden administration has produced to address the border and broader hemispheric migration movements. If it succeeds, this approach could represent a quantum leap forward for border management, restore credibility to the immigration system, keep those who seek protection from having to set out on often dangerous journeys, and give other would-be migrants information and access to existing legal pathways so fewer turn to smugglers.

However, each component part of this design must be built, mostly from scratch, and there are inherent tensions and potential pitfalls in each that make getting there fraught and challenging. Over the next year, it will become clearer whether this new approach is an effective alternative to the large-scale spontaneous border arrivals that have dominated public debate for years—one that ensures fairness to those who need protection, opportunities to many who seek to improve their families’ livelihoods, and integrity to the immigration system itself.