Secret offices, weeks of waiting, calls from private numbers, confidentiality agreements. These are some of the elements of the new US migration program known as Safe Mobility, which seeks "the expansion of legal routes to the United States or other countries for refugees and migrants in South and Central America," according to its official website. The United States launched the program in June with the purpose of "reducing irregular migration," and created immigration offices in Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala. But three months after its premiere, less than 1% of the nearly 29,000 applicants in Colombia have moved on to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, according to official data. The lack of information and secrecy about the project leave the experts consulted by EL PAÍS perplexed, and tens of thousands of migrants trapped between hope and uncertainty.
The Safe Mobility application process sounds simple. Venezuelan communicator Eliezer Briceño says by video call that the reality is different. "It's tedious," says the 40-year-old from Caracas. He registered on August 11 along with his wife and 8-year-old son through the official website. He succeeded in his second attempt, after failing when he tried it from his mobile phone. "The page is not so sociable. Anyone who does not have a good technological team will not be able to enroll quickly. Also, you have to have a good internet connection because the page is heavy, "he says.
The portal is currently closed in Colombia because it has received too many applications. It will reopen on October 10, a spokeswoman for the US Embassy that is in charge of the program explains to EL PAÍS. The available slots filled up quickly, in the two periods of a few weeks that it has opened since the launch.
Migrants cross a river in the Darien jungle in October 2022.Fernando Vergara (AP)
Briceño left Venezuela seven years ago with his wife and son in search of greater financial and emotional stability. Now, he lives and works in Ciudad Bolívar, one of the most impoverished towns in Bogotá. When he heard about Safe Mobility he was very excited. "Wow! It would be great if we could choose," he says it was his first reaction.
The father of the family is one of the millions of migrants in Colombia who can apply to migrate to the United States, Canada or Spain through Safe Mobility. The program, which is not open to Colombians, "is aimed at Cubans, Haitians and Venezuelans who were in the country on or before June 11, 2023, and who at the time of applying have a regular status or are in the process of regularization," according to the official website.
Seven weeks after submitting the application, however, Briceño says he has not heard from his status. "I only have a screenshot of my receipt that says they are going to call me. So I'm with the phone on 24/7. I'm always on the lookout," he says.
Briceño's situation is the same as that of more than 28,000 people in Colombia. Of the roughly 29,000 migrants who have applied for Safe Mobility from this country, 260 have moved on to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), according to the State Department's most recent data from Aug. 28. Safe Mobility officials do not offer information about the immigration status of these individuals after you put them in contact with USRAP.
The wait "is desperate," qualifies the Venezuelan communicator. "Going to the United States would change my life a lot. And I don't dare do that jungle odyssey." So far this year, more than 330,000 people have crossed the Darien Gap — the jungle that separates Colombia from Panama, to which Briceño refers. One in five migrants who have made that journey, filled with every imaginable danger, has been a child, the UN reports.
Safe Mobility is one of the U.S. government's responses to the migration crisis in the West, explains an official of the program. More than 20 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been displaced by the various humanitarian, political and economic crises in the region. Much of these problems are reflected in the US border with Mexico, where thousands of migrants arrive every day, which has resulted in a situation of extreme vulnerability for them and a huge controversy for US President Joe Biden. But it is not the only place: Colombia has received some 2,500,000 Venezuelans and Peru another 1,500,000.
To address this crisis, the Biden administration has opened five migration offices in Latin America this year, in collaboration with IOM and UNHCR; one in Guatemala, another in Costa Rica, and three in Colombia, where almost 70% of the more than 40,000 applications to Safe Mobility have arrived. The Colombian centers are located in Cali, Medellín and Soacha, an impoverished municipality bordering Bogotá. They are operational but their addresses are private, according to the US official, for the safety of migrants.
Adam Isacson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, explains that although the directors of Safe Mobility "are making it up on the fly," it is normal that they do not want to make the addresses public. "They probably want to prevent thousands of people from being outside their facilities, as happened in Tapachula, Mexico," he says. On multiple occasions this year, groups of thousands of migrants have stormed the offices of the National Migration Institute in that city, the largest on the border that divides Mexico from Guatemala. There have been no deaths in these incidents.
In Colombia, applicants learn office addresses only when they are notified that they have been selected for an appointment. Ariel Ruiz, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says by phone that this part of the process is in the hands of NGOs, not the US government. A UNHCR spokeswoman confirms this. "The Safe Mobility offices, supported by UNHCR and IOM, carry out the identification of cases and accompany people during the process to evaluate the eligibility of their case, possibly including face-to-face interviews, to present it later for consideration by the authorities in the United States," he writes by email to this newspaper.
A group of migrant women from Haiti and their children wait their turn to board a boat from Necoclí, Colombia to Capurgana, and then cross the Daríen Gap and thus reach Panama. August 5, 2021.
The work of the two multilateral entities of the UN system is to find out if each applicant has a place in one of the four migratory routes offered by the program: resettlement as a refugee, family reunification, a temporary employment visa or humanitarian permission – known in the US as parole. "It is clear that there are not enough legal avenues to care for all these people. Therefore, program agents have limited options," Ruiz admits.
Once one of the organizations identifies a good candidate, Secure Mobility contacts them. It does so by telephone, without prior notice and from a private number, to which the interested party cannot return the call if he could not answer. During this conversation, you are notified that you have been chosen for the next step: an appointment at the facility. What happens when they go to secret offices for meetings, however, "is disconcerting," Isacson said.
EL PAÍS interviewed by telematic means a dozen migrants who have had appointments with Safe Mobility in Colombia. Some have only had one interview, others have several. A couple have finished the process and say they are preparing to travel to the United States, although they do not know in which city it will end. None agreed to give their names. According to them, program workers make it clear during interviews that talking publicly about the process can affect the outcome. What's more, several said they were made to sign a confidentiality agreement that says they "can't comment on their process." It is a procedure that Cornell University professor and immigration expert Stephen Yale-Loehr describes as "unprecedented" and "unusual."
The criminal lawyer explains that the signing of non-disclosure clauses is not part of the refugee process in the United States nor is it a requirement to conduct an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. "It would have to be a new procedure, which I hadn't heard of before," he says.
A spokeswoman in charge of Safe Mobility denies the accusations of the interviewees. "Applicants don't have to sign a confidentiality agreement. We ask you to sign an agreement giving your consent to provide your personal data to the partners of the initiative. This information is necessary to determine the eligibility criteria of applicants," he writes by email.
However, when asked about these agreements, UNHCR does not deny them. "The resettlement process requires confidentiality because we are talking about people in need of international protection," said a spokeswoman for the organization.
The migrants say that the uncertainty does not end after signing the supposed confidentiality agreement and finishing the interview. Those who are rejected receive an email notifying them of this. The others are still in limbo, in a definite endless wait for hopefully, one of these days, to get another call. Some receive it soon, in a week. Others lament that they have been waiting for almost a month. "There is no information. They haven't rejected me yet, but they've summoned other people who had their interview after I had mine," says one migrant. "They seem to choose randomly. It's very frustrating."
When the U.S. government launched Safe Mobility in Colombia, it announced that it would do "a six-month pilot test." Halfway there, he says he plans to enlarge it, but refuses to give a concrete timeline. In the face of so much uncertainty, Yale-Loehr confesses that she understands the frustration surrounding the program. "It's had a very slow start," he admits.
With global migration at record numbers, no single initiative can solve the problem; It will depend on the collaboration of many countries and in many different ways. The future of Safe Mobility in this process, says the criminal lawyer, remains unknown: "It is not a failure yet, but it has not been a success either."
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