As the Biden administration struggles to tackle a humanitarian and political crisis at America’s doorstep, it is focusing increasingly on keeping migrants far from the U.S.-Mexico border by establishing migration processing centers in Central and South America.
But the program is off to a rocky start, with demand for appointments far outstripping supply, leading to periodic shutdowns of the online portal, and some countries’ limiting applicants over concerns that the centers will cause migrants to overwhelm their own borders.
The centers, in Colombia, Costa Rica and others planned in Guatemala, have become a primary focus of the president’s migration strategy, U.S. officials said, and the administration is already exploring expanding the program to other nations in the region, including opening a similar office in Mexico.
The program, known as the safe mobility initiative, is “the most ambitious plan I’ve seen,” said Sean Garcia, the deputy refugee coordinator for the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, who has worked on migration for over a decade.
But even some officials involved in the initiative acknowledge that it is a modest response to an enormous challenge.
More people — 360,000 through the beginning of the month — have already crossed the Darién Gap this year than in all of last year. And in August, roughly 91,000 families at the U.S. southern border were arrested after crossing illegally, a monthly record.
“The effect on migration through the Darién will be minimal or none at all,” Francisco Coy, Colombia’s vice minister of foreign affairs, said about the U.S. program. “Let’s be frank.”
Since it was kicked off in June, the program has put about 3,600 migrants out of roughly 40,000 applicants on a path to be allowed into the United States, according to U.S. officials.
A spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, said it would “take time to build up the program to the scale we want to.”
“We’re ensuring services are being provided in an orderly and efficient manner, while also being able to improve processes,” she added.
Alex Díaz, his wife and 4-year-old son were about to board a boat in May to reach the Darién Gap, a brutal stretch of jungle connecting North and South America.
They had spent about $80 on tickets but quickly aborted their plans when they learned of a far safer option to try to make it to the United States: the new Biden administration plan to open offices in several countries, including Colombia, where migrants, like the Díaz family, could apply for entry.
Once online applications opened in June, Mr. Díaz, who is Venezuelan, quickly registered for an interview appointment.
He has heard nothing since.
The program is meant to provide legal entry into the United States for qualified people seeking refugee status, family reunification or another temporary status known as parole. It does not provide asylum, which must usually be sought once inside the U.S. border or at a port of entry.
With migration one of President Biden’s most vexing challenges and emerging as a potent issue in next year’s election, the administration is essentially offshoring the issue by relying on Central and South American countries to keep migrants from journeying northward.
The Mexican authorities had been intercepting migrants crossing into Mexico from the south and preventing many from traveling to the U.S. border, though in recent weeks the flow of migrants heading north appears to be growing.
Colombia has accepted 2.5 million Venezuelan migrants in recent years and, with the help of U.S. aid, has provided residency permits, though many migrants have abandoned the country because of a lack of economic opportunity.
Following the expiration in the spring of a pandemic-era public health order that allowed the swift deportation of most migrants, the Biden administration introduced rules designed to restrict asylum at the border, while also expanding legal avenues for entry into the United States.
After a notable dip in border encounters, the numbers have started quickly rising. Illegal border crossings have climbed to record levels during Mr. Biden’s tenure, part of an immense global movement of people driven by poverty, violence and political instability.
Mr. Díaz, 28, arrived in Colombia from Venezuela in 2017, looking for work to pay for his wedding to his fiancée, Beatriz.
As economic conditions worsened in Venezuela, he decided to stay in Colombia but struggled to gain a foothold in the small border city where he had settled. He worked as a street vendor and was briefly homeless before moving to Bogotá, the capital.
Eventually, Beatriz joined him and they had a son. They both work part time — Mr. Díaz at a printing company, and his wife as a substitute teacher — but are called in only when needed.
They struggle to afford food for their malnourished son, who needs to gain weight before he can get the surgery to remove his tonsils that doctors say he requires.
The couple have long dreamed of starting a business in the United States, and if Mr. Díaz doesn’t hear back about an appointment at a migration processing center, he said he would again try to cross the jungle.
The online portal to schedule appointments in Colombia, which opened on June 28, shut down after just one day. The portal was supposed to close after receiving 3,000 applications, a State Department official said, but was flooded with more than 5,000 applications in the first 12 hours. It opened again briefly in August and received another 5,000 applications.
Two offices opened last month in Medellín and Cali, the country’s second and third largest cities. A third is set to open soon near Bogotá.
A top concern for the United States and other countries during negotiations over the program was that the new offices would attract waves of migrants, according to Colombian and U.S. officials.
To deter mass movements, officials set strict rules. The offices do not accept walk-ins and are limited to certain nationalities. The program in Costa Rica is open to Venezuelans and Nicaraguans who were in the country before June 12, while in Colombia it is reserved for Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans who were in the country before June 11.
The Guatemalan government initially said it would accept applicants from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador but has since restricted it only to Guatemalans.
“We will not allow any kind of massive or irregular flows or caravans,” Mario Búcaro, Guatemala’s minister for foreign affairs, said in a video interview distributed to journalists in June. “They are always moved by criminal groups that try to destabilize the sovereignty of the countries.”
Some applicants, in addition to complaining about getting no follow-up when they registered for the program, said the requirements were unclear and that applicants in the three major cities where offices have opened, or will be, were contacted before people who had submitted applications earlier.
U.S. officials said they were trying to reduce caseloads in large cities while figuring out how to reach applicants outside of them.
“We are committed to making sure that everybody gets a shot at this,” Mr. Garcia said.
While new programs involving multiple governments are bound to experience hiccups, the safe mobility initiative needs to be better managed and be much bigger to be effective, migration experts said.
“They’re not providing what could be called an alternative pathway; they’re providing an alternative trickle — maybe,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America.
Migrants are “going to tell everybody they know that this was a total waste of time” if they don’t receive quicker responses from program administrators, he said.
Andreina Cardozi, 33, who left Venezuela five years ago, lives in the mountainous city of Pereira, where her husband works seasonally on a coffee and plantain farm. But when the harvest dries up, so do his paychecks, and they struggle to support their three young children.
She applied for the U.S. migration program the day it opened online, but said she got no response. Friends have crossed the Darién Gap and managed to enter the United States.
She plans to soon follow the same route.
“I would also like to go and see if my life changes,” she said. “It does scare me, but in the name of God I’m going to risk it because I have no other possibility.”
Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.