US and Guatemala launch new migration processing centres

Move comes as Joe Biden’s administration seeks to deter migrants and refugees from seeking protection at Mexico border.

Asylum seekers hoping to get protection in US walk to an encampment in northern Mexico
Asylum seekers seeking protection in the United States arrive at an encampment to wait for an appointment, in Matamoros, Mexico, on May 12, 2023 [File: Daniel Becerril/Reuters]

The United States and Guatemala have announced the launch of new migration processing centres in the Central American nation as President Joe Biden’s administration tries to deter migrants and refugees from seeking to enter the US at its border with Mexico.

In a statement on Thursday, the White House said the six-month pilot programme aims to “manage irregular migration” through the use of “Secure Mobility Offices”.

The offices will be open for appointments beginning on June 12 to facilitate temporary work permits, family reunifications and other avenues of entry to the US, according to a joint statement issued by the two countries.

It was unclear from the announcement where in Guatemala these centres will operate.

The move comes as part of Washington’s push to deter asylum seekers from seeking protection at the southern US border, which has seen an influx of arrivals since Biden took office in early 2021.

The Biden administration had put new migration restrictions in place and announced it would open centres in Guatemala and Colombia to screen would-be migrants and refugees as a contentious, pandemic-era policy expired last month.

The Title 42 public health order, first imposed by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump in 2020, had allowed US border authorities to rapidly expel most asylum seekers due to COVID-19 concerns without having to rule on their applications for protection.

Now, in addition to other measures, a new US rule has made most people ineligible to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border if they passed through a third country and did not first apply for protection there.

The measure has been called an “asylum ban” by critics, who have urged the Biden administration to change course and uphold US obligations to migrants and refugees under domestic and international law.

But the US has said it is seeking to deter “irregular” migration and open up “legal pathways” for people to seek protection.

A website for the US-Guatemala “Secure Mobility Offices” says the programme will “provide a pathway to the United States that is lawful and safe, meaning that refugees and migrants do not need to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and attempt dangerous and irregular journeys”.

“The United States and Guatemala will also deepen cooperation on border security and will continue to address the root causes of irregular migration,” the White House said in Thursday’s statement.

But last month, Kevin Lopez, the Guatemalan presidency’s secretary of communications, told reporters the centres were being “unilaterally” set up by the US and might be swamped by applicants once they opened.

He also raised the prospective logistical strain on Guatemala if it suddenly had to house people awaiting a verdict on their applications for asylum in the US.

In addition to being the country of origin for thousands of people who migrate to the US every year, Guatemala is also often a transit point for people fleeing poverty or violence in their own countries as they travel farther north.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies