Local refugee resettlement agencies said they support the administration’s move to process migrants for U.S. refugee status in Mexico, expressing confidence in their ability to manage an uptick in arrivals.
“So long as we have the appropriate funding and time to expand capacity, there won’t be any issues,” said Ashley Coleman, spokeswoman for Inspiritus, an Atlanta-based resettlement agency.
Little is known about when the new refugee initiative would be operational, or how many migrants could benefit from it. The State Department, which is responsible for overseeing the U.S. refugee resettlement program, did not share additional information with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As detailed in the White House’s announcement on July 28, the Mexican government will set up an “international multipurpose space” in southern Mexico where migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela will be vetted for refugee status. That would mark the first time the U.S. has carried out refugee processing on a large scale in Mexico, according to a report from CBS News.
Citizens from those four nations have accounted for the bulk of illegal crossings in recent years. For months, they have also been able to lawfully — but temporarily — enter the U.S. through a new sponsorship program.
The new refugee initiative is in line with the Biden administration strategy of opening targeted legal pathways for migrants to enter the U.S., all while cracking down on illegal border crossings and restricting access to asylum.
“We encourage migrants to use these legal pathways instead of putting their lives in the hands of dangerous smugglers and traffickers,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan in a press release. “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.”
The Biden administration’s new border and asylum restrictions succeeded in sharply bringing down illegal crossings from record highs set in recent years. But their future is uncertain, as a federal judge ruled late last month that they violated existing law. The Justice Department is seeking relief from a higher court.
Both refugee status and asylum are meant to protect people who risk persecution in their home countries. But while refugee status is granted outside the U.S., the process of adjudicating asylum claims takes place largely inside the country. Because of significant backlogs in immigration courts, asylum seekers can live and work here for years while their cases are pending, even if the odds of ultimately securing asylum are low.
‘The right move’
Paedia Mixon is the chief executive officer of New American Pathways, an Atlanta-based refugee resettlement agency.
In a statement, she said that New American Pathways “is hopeful that [the Biden administration’s new refugee initiative] will provide access to greatly needed humanitarian support to displaced people. While processing refugees in Mexico is an important humanitarian effort, it should not be used as a substitute for a strong asylum system.”
Leadership at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta, the metro area’s largest resettlement agency, also supports the Biden administration’s move.
“What is good to see is that it is the U.S. government acknowledging that we have the systems and processes through which to offer [refugee status] to people, even in Mexico. And it’s a system that has been shown to work to vet people, to legitimate claims, and then provide safe pathways,” said Justin Howell, the IRC in Atlanta’s executive director. “So, I think this is really the right move.”
Howell expressed confidence that the resettlement ecosystem will be able to cope with an eventual surge of new refugees from Latin America.
The IRC in Atlanta has resettled 697 refugees so far in 2023.
“I feel like we have the team and the structure and the capacity in place, because we’ve all been gearing up. We’ve heard now for two years that the Biden administration wanted to really do its part to welcome [more] refugees, so we’ve been strategically scaling up and hiring up for that … I think as a sector we’ll be ready.”
Biden’s pledges to expand the U.S. refugee program came after years of disinvestment during the Trump administration, which decimated refugee admissions to record lows. The current White House has set ambitious goals of resettling up to 125,000 refugees per year, but hasn’t come close to hitting those targets. In fiscal year 2022, just over 25,000 refugees were admitted, government data shows. The pace, however, has picked up in 2023.
At Inspiritus, staff feels “well-equipped” to handle an increase under the administration’s new refugee program, according to Coleman.
Finding affordable housing for a significant number of potential new arrivals, though, would be complicated.
“Affordable housing is always a general challenge that resettlement agencies are kind of struggling to grapple with … So I would say that’s really the only primary external factor that would make an increased number of clients a little bit challenging for us.”
Refugees from Latin America could have a smoother integration process overall, given the significant Latin American footprint in metro Atlanta and across much of the U.S.
“The learning curve, I think, in terms of what is culturally familiar is definitely not that crazily different for folks coming from Mexico or from Central America, just kind of being our neighbors geographically and being on this side of the world, and sharing a lot of traditions and having a huge domestic Latino community in the United States,” Coleman said. “So, you know, regarding things like culture and language and finding community, those things are definitely easier.”
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