By Ted Hesson and Dave Graham
WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing a new U.S. refugee program for some non-Mexican asylum seekers waiting in Mexico, four sources said, part of President Joe Biden’s attempts to create more legal avenues for migration.
The program would likely be open to Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan refugees in Mexico, the sources said. Migrants would need to show they were in Mexico before June 6 to qualify, one of the sources said.
The sources – a U.S. official, a Mexican official and two people familiar with the matter who all spoke on condition of anonymity – stressed that the issue remained under discussion and no final decisions had been made. It was not clear how many people might benefit from such a program.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants from those four nations have passed through Mexico en route to the U.S. during political and economic upheaval in recent years, straining resources in both countries and putting political pressure on Biden, a Democrat seeking reelection in 2024.
The plan under discussion would allow qualifying migrants approved for refugee status to enter via the U.S. refugee resettlement program, which is only available to applicants abroad, the sources said. Unlike most migrants who claim asylum after entering the U.S., refugees receive immediate work authorization and government benefits such as housing and employment assistance.
Refugees using the U.S. resettlement program can apply to become permanent residents within one year, offering more stability than other options. To be approved, they must establish that they face persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
In a statement, Mexico’s foreign ministry said it is in constant communication with the U.S. about expanding labor mobility and refugee protections. To that end, it said it had held discussions over various programs and policies, while always safeguarding national sovereignty.
However, Mexico has not reached any agreement with the U.S., the ministry added.
BROADER BIDEN MIGRANT STRATEGY
The Biden administration has opened up new ways for migrants to enter the U.S. legally as part of a broader strategy to discourage people from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Migrants waiting in Mexico can apply for U.S. entry on a smartphone app and later request asylum, but slots on the app fill up quickly. Under another Biden program, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans can request to enter the U.S. by air if they have U.S. sponsors.
But those routes do not provide the same benefits available to refugees or a direct path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship.
In April, the Biden administration said it aimed to admit 40,000 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, doubling a previous target. As of May 31, about 3,400 had arrived, showing that the pace would need to greatly accelerate to reach the goal.
Some refugee backers are concerned the focus on Latin America could slow processing from other parts of the world, including of refugees already waiting for approval.
The initiative under discussion would be a “Priority Two” refugee program, the sources said, similar to one opened for Afghans in 2021. Such programs allow certain groups of people to apply for refugee status directly without needing a referral from the United Nations.
Despite the discussions, Mexico has significant concerns, the Mexican official said.
If the program encourages more migrants to enter Mexico, it could tax the country’s already-strained resources for dealing with migrants, the official said.
One significant concern for Mexico is where the migrants would be processed, the official said.
If the U.S. used its existing consular facilities, the plan could work, but any new U.S. center in Mexico for the purpose would be politically fraught, the official added.
Pending decisions will also require the participation of Mexico’s incoming foreign minister Alicia Barcena, who is yet to be confirmed to the post, the official said.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)