As part of a far-reaching plan to address large-scale migration across the Western Hemisphere, the Biden administration announced in spring 2023 that it was establishing new regional processing centers in Latin America, where prospective immigrants, temporary workers, and refugees would be able to access free screenings for potential lawful pathways to the United States and beyond.
By June 2023, the first regional processing centers — rebranded as Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs) — launched their initial phase in three countries: Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia (Mexico has also “recognized the great potential value” of the centers and is reportedly establishing an “international multipurpose space” to support vulnerable migrants).
Early on, the State Department indicated that eventually, it intended to open around 100 of these brick-and-mortar facilities in the region, with support from personnel at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“These are places where we feel a humanitarian, as well as the security imperative, to meet people where they are, to cut the smugglers out, and to provide them with a safe and orderly way to arrive in the United States if they qualify for relief,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said of the SMOs.
In the first months of the initiative, much remains unclear about the offices’ operational realities. But at least on paper, they appear to serve a dual purpose: 1) as sites to identify and refer refugees from within the Western Hemisphere for potential resettlement in the U.S., and 2) as on-the-ground locations to try to deter irregular migration to the U.S.-Mexico border by sharing credible information about the U.S.’s immigration system.
Staff at the centers may also screen applicants for relocation to other safe countries, like Canada and Spain. However, at least some of the offices have made clear that they are not issuing visas to the U.S. directly.
During the initial phase of the SMOs, offices in each participating country have incorporated distinct parameters, eligibility criteria, and processes for applicants. Read on for more about what we know so far on how the SMOs are being implemented in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia, and who may qualify to participate.
The U.S. and Guatemala implemented the initial phase of the Safe Mobility program on June 12, 2023, with the help of IOM and UNHCR. The initiative is intended “to promote safe and orderly legal migration with access to protection mechanisms.”
As part of the Safe Mobility program, the new SMOs offer a free process — albeit only for certain people — “to learn about different legal migration pathways to the United States and other countries” while would-be migrants are still relatively close to home. But the offices “do not provide work or other visas to the United States,” rendering them more akin to screening and information centers than actual processing centers.
For this reason, Guatemala’s SMOs have both great potential and serious constraints. Applicants there may be able to acquire valuable and tailored knowledge about what steps they could take to pursue lawful, orderly, and safe pathways to the U.S. and elsewhere.
That said, many of those existing migration avenues are predicated on specific qualifiers — for instance, a job offer from a U.S. employer, a family connection, or the sponsorship of a U.S.-based financial supporter — that would likely require potential candidates to navigate complicated hurdles long before ever receiving legal permission to travel stateside.
And ultimately, the Safe Mobility website acknowledges that “all final decisions on entering the United States are made by the United States authorities” — a telling caveat when so much of the staffing and support for the initiative is seemingly being provided by international partners.
During the SMOs’ initial phase in Guatemala, eligibility for and access to the program has also been curtailed by country of origin. Initially, only Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans waiting in those three countries and Guatemalans in Guatemala could partake. More recently, participation appears to have been restricted even further, so that only Guatemalans in their home country may qualify. Applicants start the process by filling out a free online form, which SMO personnel then review before deciding whether to request an in-person interview or respond with information about potential immigration pathways. But since its release, the online application has had to periodically shut down to allow officials to troubleshoot issues.
Costa Rica and the U.S. launched an exploratory six-month implementation phase for the Safe Mobility initiative on June 12, 2023 — the same day as the program debuted in Guatemala.
Much like other SMOs, the offices in Costa Rica will “facilitate access to lawful pathways to the United States and other countries, including expedited refugee processing and other humanitarian and labor pathways.”
But unlike other iterations, Costa Rica’s started as a relatively restrictive, invitation-only process for the first two months. UNHCR directly contacted those eligible to participate: a limited pool of Nicaraguans and Venezuelans in Costa Rica who could prove they were already physically present in the country and registered with UNHCR as asylum seekers at the time the program began.
With the end of the initial two-month phase, the Costa Rica SMOs have become more readily accessible through an online application, which is open to Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who were already in Costa Rica by June 12, 2023.
By the end of June, the U.S. and Colombia launched a six-month exploratory phase for the Safe Mobility program in Colombia.
The Colombian Safe Mobility program is limited to applicants from Cuba, Haiti, or Venezuela who were in Colombia as of June 11, 2023, and who have a regular status or are undergoing the regularization process at the time of their application. Unlike Guatemalans applying for the Guatemalan Safe Mobility program, Colombians are ineligible for the Colombian iteration, despite recent upticks in Colombian arrivals seeking safety and opportunity at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Operated by international organizations such as UNHCR and IOM, the Colombian SMOs will reportedly try to identify Cubans, Haitians, and Venezuelans who might qualify for refugee resettlement through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Personnel may also provide information about alternative lawful pathways to the U.S.
Like in Guatemala, the first step to request a screening at an SMO in Colombia is a digital form, though the online application has often been taken offline to provide more time for processing.
The creation of SMOs is a positive first step, but more needs to be done to ensure that the program truly provides migrants with access to the protection mechanisms it touts.
The U.S. immigration system is infamously byzantine, and just by helping prospective migrants and refugees to navigate it, the Biden administration’s new Safe Mobility initiative could achieve a great deal if it dispels misinformation while connecting those eligible to lawful, safe, and orderly migration pathways.
At a time when the Biden administration has promised to dramatically increase its refugee resettlement commitments for people fleeing persecution across the Americas but has struggled to follow through, the SMOs also represent a genuine opportunity to expand refugee processing capacity and infrastructure in the region.
But across the three nations where the offices have been implemented so far, the Safe Mobility program is inhibited by key limitations. Only certain nationalities are eligible to participate at all, while specific cutoff dates and geofencing make the initiative largely irrelevant to most people who are still at home, deciding how to migrate now. The digital forms close sporadically, leaving potential candidates in the dark about when they will be able to finally apply. And, perhaps most concerning, applicants could lose interest in the SMOs if they find that the facilities are not in fact processing centers — especially if the information they receive there leads them down yet another bureaucratic rabbit hole instead of allowing them to travel safely and expeditiously to the U.S. or other safe nations like Canada and Spain.
In sum, the SMOs are a positive development toward a more regionally and globally collaborative response to large-scale migration across the Western Hemisphere. But the Biden administration and its partners must do more to surge resources and staffing to the new facilities, while expanding the availability of lawful, expedited pathways and actual processing there. Done well, the Safe Mobility program could become a powerful tool for a more humane response to forced displacement in the Americas, by providing a venue for migrants and refugees to access real, viable pathways to safety and opportunity.