US and Guatemala launch new migration processing centres

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

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

The White House said in a statement Thursday said the six-month pilot program aims to “control irregular migration” through the use of “Secure Mobility Offices”.

The offices will be open from June 12 for appointments to facilitate temporary work permits, family reunions and other entry routes into the US, according to a joint statement from the two countries.

It was not clear from the announcement where in Guatemala these centers will operate.

The move comes as part of Washington’s effort 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 introduced new migration restrictions and announced it would open centers in Guatemala and Colombia to screen potential migrants and refugees as a controversial 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 quickly deport most asylum seekers over COVID-19 concerns without having to decide on their requests for protection.

Now, among other measures, a new US rule has made most people ineligible to apply for asylum at the US-Mexico border if they have traveled through a third country and have not applied for protection there first.

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

But the US has said it is trying to curb “irregular” migration and open “legal avenues” for people to seek protection.

A website for the US-Guatemala, “Secure Mobility Offices” says the program will “provide a route to the United States that is legal and safe, meaning that refugees and migrants do not have to put their lives in the hands of smugglers and avoid dangerous and irregular attempts to undertake travel”.

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

But last month Kevin Lopez, the secretary of communications for the Guatemalan presidency, told reporters that the centers were being set up “unilaterally” by the US and could be overrun by applicants once they opened.

He also pointed to the future logistical pressure on Guatemala if it suddenly had to house people awaiting a ruling on their asylum applications in the US.

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