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Biden administration to give some migrants in Mexico refugee status in U.S.


Washington — The Biden administration plans to welcome some Latin American and Caribbean migrants currently waiting in Mexico into the U.S. through the refugee resettlement program, as part of another effort to offer them an alternative to crossing the U.S. southern border illegally, the White House announced Friday.

The initiative will allow eligible migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who are living in Mexico to come to the U.S. with refugee status, which puts them on a path to permanent residency and citizenship, and makes them eligible for government assistance through the early resettlement process.

Not all migrants from these countries will qualify for the refugee process, which typically takes years to complete due to medical checks, interviews and multiple security screenings. To be eligible for refugee status, applicants must prove they were persecuted — or could face persecution — in their home country because of certain characteristics, such as their race, religion or political views.

For weeks, Biden administration officials have been negotiating with the Mexican government over the program, as Mexico had to agree to host the refugee applicants while the U.S. determines whether or not they’re eligible, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the talks. On Friday, the White House said Mexican officials would set up an “international multipurpose space” in southern Mexico, where migrants will begin the process of applying for refugee status or temporary work programs. 

The refugee program is likely to include several eligibility restrictions, including for migrants who recently entered Mexico, U.S. officials said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal plans. Still, the initiative would mark the first time the U.S. will be conducting refugee processing in Mexico on a large scale.

Representatives for the White House and the State Department, which oversees the U.S. refugee resettlement program, did not provide additional details about the latest initiative, including how many migrants are expected to benefit from it.

The plan announced Friday is the latest effort by the Biden administration to discourage migrants from attempts to enter the U.S. illegally through the southern border by expanding legal opportunities for them to come to the U.S. 

The administration has been processing and admitting tens of thousands of migrants at ports of entry along the southern border through an app-powered system, and bringing in up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans with U.S. sponsors at airports each month. These populations have been welcomed under the humanitarian parole authority, which allows them to work legally in the U.S. but does not make them eligible for permanent status or refugee benefits.

Those efforts have been paired with increased deportations and stricter asylum standards for migrants who enter the U.S. unlawfully. The restrictions on asylum eligibility, however, are set to be blocked in early August, due a recent federal court ruling that found them in violation of U.S. refugee law. The Justice Department is seeking to have that ruling suspended.

“We encourage migrants to use these legal pathways instead of putting their lives in the hands of dangerous smugglers and traffickers,” President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday. “Pursuant to our laws, those seeking to enter the United States unlawfully will continue to face strong consequences, including removal, possible criminal prosecution, and a bar on reentry.”

Biden administration officials have said their “carrot and stick” strategy is the catalyst behind a sharp drop in unlawful border crossings since May. Extreme temperatures in the southern U.S. and increased efforts by other countries in stopping U.S.-bound migrants are also likely playing a role, migration experts said.

But the decrease in illegal border entries hasn’t stopped the intense Republican criticism of the Biden administration’s border strategy. Republicans lawmakers have criticized the administration for diverting migrants to the parole programs, which they say abuse that legal authority. 

Mr. Biden came into office pledging to reinvigorate the U.S. refugee program after the Trump administration slashed refugee admissions to record lows and the COVID-19 pandemic slowed refugee processing. Over the past years, his administration has set ambitious targets of resettling up to 125,000 refugees annually, but has been falling far short of those goals, admitting just over 25,000 refugees in fiscal year 2022.

Refugee admissions, however, have been on the rise recently. With three months left in fiscal year 2023, the U.S. has welcomed more than 38,000 refugees, government statistics show.


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