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Offshore Centers Set Up by the United States to Combat Surge in Immigration

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The United States announced Thursday that it will set up immigration centers in Guatemala and Colombia to process asylum seekers heading to the country’s borders with Mexico.

The Biden administration’s move represents an attempt to slow what is expected to be a surge in immigrants as pandemic-era immigration restrictions expire.

The immigration centers are part of an intensifying effort to try to stop thousands of people from making the often perilous journey to the southern border when restrictions expire on May 11.

But it is unclear whether processing centers and other measures, including expedited processing of asylum seekers and crackdowns on people smuggling networks, will do much to slow the tide of migrants fleeing countries marred by political and economic conflicts.

“This is a hemispheric challenge that requires hemispheric solutions,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a news conference while outlining the next steps ahead of the May 11 deadline.

Mayorkas also warned that migrants and people smugglers should not interpret the upcoming deadline as meaning the borders are wide open: “Let me be clear, our borders are not open and they will not open after May 11th.”

The Biden administration, under attack by Republicans eager to draw borders wide open under his leadership, has repeatedly warned that ending pandemic-era immigration restrictions does not mean immigrants should try to come to the United States as they also did. He sought to open other avenues for immigration.

Immigration has infuriated Biden throughout his presidency, with top GOP leaders calling him soft on border security and immigration advocates saying he is abandoning humanitarian efforts with tougher measures aimed at stopping immigrants from coming illegally.

The topic won’t go away. Announcing a bid for re-election in 2024, Biden is trying to strike a balance that could be difficult to strike, especially if crowds of immigrants end up at border facilities as restrictions end. The administration has also repeatedly referred to Congress, saying it has been unable to reach agreement on comprehensive immigration reform.

So far, the centers will be located in Colombia and Guatemala, and other countries will be announced in the coming weeks. Prospective immigrants will be able to go to centers instead of coming to the border and get information about applying to become a refugee or other immigration options to the United States or other countries.

These centers will be run by international organisations. Prospective immigrants will be able to make an appointment on their phone to visit a center, according to a fact sheet from the Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration restrictions go back to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when the Trump administration invoked a rule — known as Title 42 — that would allow border officials to quickly expel migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum.

Since March 2020, immigrants have been expelled from the country more than 2.8 million times using Address 42.

Republican-leaning states have fought to keep the restrictions in place, arguing that their states would face increased costs such as education from a surge in immigrants if they were lifted. The Biden administration initially kept the rule in place, but barring any last-minute court decisions, it looks increasingly like May 11 will mark the end of Title 42’s use.

Administration officials said they expect the number of migrants encountered at the southern border per day to rise to as many as 13,000 per day, without further action.

But many immigration advocates say Title 42 gave immigrants a perverse incentive to try to enter the country again and again because there were no repercussions if people were expelled. Therefore, advocates argue, it is unclear what will happen when Title 42 goes and the United States reverts to using immigration regulations that actually penalize the person who is expelled.

According to the administration’s plan, people who come illegally will also be quickly deported and banned from returning to the country for at least five years and will not be able to apply for asylum, according to the fact sheet.

It also says families will be deported if they do not meet the conditions for asylum. The administration is ramping up efforts to track families, including GPS monitoring and strict curfews.

But the administration stopped short of detaining the families until they were removed from the country — a move that likely would have caused outcry among immigration advocates and some of the president’s supporters.

The administration is also expanding access to an app where immigrants can apply for asylum at a US port of entry. Officials are laying out a new family reunification process for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia that will allow immigrants who have been screened with their families in the United States to come legally.

Officials are also working to double the number of refugees from the Western Hemisphere. The administration also says it is working with Colombia and Panama to reduce migration through the Darien Gap.

Biden administration officials in early April announced a plan to work with both countries to stem migration across the Darien Gap, where the United States offers intelligence gathering to dismantle smuggling rings operating in the dense jungle.

Already, UN groups are warning that 100,000 people have already made the dangerous crossing across the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, and that the number of migrants making the crossing could reach 400,000 by the end of this year. That would be a significant increase from the 250,000 migrants who crossed the unforested route in 2022.

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