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Colombia to Open Migrant Processing Centres in US-led Effort

Colombian authorities have announced that the country will open three “safe mobility” sites to process Haitian, Venezuelan and Cuban migrants and asylum seekers hoping to reach the United States, as part of a regional effort to stem irregular border crossings.

The Colombian Foreign Ministry announced the facilities on Thursday, as part of a six-month “exploratory phase”. Two are set to be located in Soacha and Cali. The third facility, in Medellín, began operating on August 1.

“This initiative is a sign of the commitment of the two countries to creating conditions for safe, orderly, humane and regular migration, as well as to strengthening international protection and cooperation frameworks,” the ministry’s press release said.

The immigration processing sites are part of a larger effort by the administration of US President Joe Biden to decrease the number of people seeking refuge irregularly at the US border with Mexico.

‘Safe mobility’ sites part of regional effort

Earlier this year, the Biden government unveiled a series of immigration reforms designed to address criticism of his border policies.

Irregular crossings at the US-Mexico border hit a record high in 2022, and with the controversial Title 42 border expulsion policy nearing its expiration, Republican officials warned that arrivals threatened to skyrocket, overwhelming border resources.

“Safe mobility” sites like Colombia’s were among the proposed solutions. They were framed as an alternative for asylum seekers and migrants who might otherwise make the long, perilous trip north to the US-Mexico border in order to apply for refuge.

“The goal,” the Biden administration explained, “is to prevent those who intend to start or continue irregular migration to the United States or other places such as Canada from taking such a risk.”

Migration processing sites are planned for other countries as well: In June, for instance, the US announced migration processing centres in Guatemala, as part of a collaboration with that country.

In April, the US, Panama and Colombia also entered into a joint effort to address irregular migration through the Darien Gap, a common route migrants and asylum seekers take to walk from South to Central America. The gap, however, is a deadly stretch of rugged terrain prone to flooding, and criminal organisations are known to prey on migrants there.

Processing centres face criticism

The Biden administration’s announcement of new remote processing centres has gotten a mixed reception from immigrant rights groups. Some see the centres as a positive step that helps migrants avoid the dangerous trip north.

Others see them as another form of “border externalisation”, whereby the US outsources its responsibility for processing, housing or turning away asylum seekers to other countries. They warn conditions may not be safe for migrants in those countries, where abusive state authorities sometimes have ties to criminal groups.

Critics have also denounced the US for narrowing pathways for asylum seekers to apply for refugee status. In addition to opening migration processing centres abroad, the Biden administration has attempted to block arrivals at the US-Mexico border by instituting policies that require asylum seekers to apply for refuge in the countries they travel through first.

Only if they were rejected in those countries could they then apply for asylum in the US, under the terms of the rule.

However, on July 25, a US judge struck down that provision, which critics called an “asylum ban”. The Biden administration, however, was given two weeks to appeal.

Fluctuating rates of border crossings

In the month after the expiration of the Title 42 border expulsion policy, irregular border crossings from Mexico into the US declined, from 206,702 in May to 144,571 in June.

The Biden administration has since touted those numbers as evidence its immigration policies are having their intended effect.

But earlier this week, US authorities announced that border apprehensions had shot up by more than 30 percent in the month of July, although they remain below the levels seen prior to Title 42’s expiration.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated earlier this week that a record 250,000 people have crossed through the Darien Gap in the first seven months of the year, surpassing last year’s total.

Immigration is expected to be a central issue when Biden seeks re-election in 2024, with Republicans hammering his record at the US southern border.