The opening of US migrant processing centers in Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala ensures that more than ever these countries will become waiting rooms for asylum seekers wanting American visas.
The "Safe Mobility" initiative rolled out by Washington in Central America -- the main corridor for tens of thousands hoping to reach the United States without visas -- attempts to expand legal pathways for asylum seekers while keeping them in countries farther from the US border.
The new program started May 11 with the end of Title 42, which had allowed US authorities to return migrants across the border and deny them the right to seek asylum under rules put in place due to the Covid pandemic.
Migrants must now seek a virtual appointment on the movilidadsegura.org website, which is supported by the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration.
New regional processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala will interview migrants for legal pathways to the United States, Canada and Spain.
In Costa Rica, Safe Mobility offices will facilitate ways for Nicaraguans and Venezuelans to migrate legally as long as they were in the country prior to June 12.
US officials consider the new program a success.
A State Department official, speaking on background, said it expands lawful ways for migrants to obtain visas "instead of making the dangerous journey to try to enter irregularly."
The flow of US-bound migrants from South America -- mostly Venezuela and Ecuador -- has increased through the Darien, the perilous jungle isthmus between Colombia and Panama.
A recent UN statement said more than 100,000 people have crossed through the Darien so far in 2023, a sixfold increase from the same period last year.
- Borders -
US officials believe the new processing centers will make it easier for migrants to determine if they have a legal pathway to the United States and not have to put their lives in the hands of smugglers.
University of Costa Rica academic Carlos Sandoval told AFP this initiative responds to a strategy of moving immigration controls southward to implement "more border controls before the physical border."
"Mexico is the first border," Sandoval said. But US officials have sought to place border controls "in Guatemala as well, and now it is coming to the south."
In March alone, more than 160,000 people tried to cross into the United States from Mexico, according to the State Department.
- Containing flows -
Sandoval said three types of migrants converge in Central America on their way to the United States. There are Central Americans; those coming from South America, mainly Venezuela; and lastly people from other parts of the world.
"Central America has been and will continue to be a waiting room," he said.
Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia will be the strategic countries to "contain these migratory flows," said Gabriela Oviedo, Human Mobility Project coordinator at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL).
- 'Transit point' -
The United States proposes that migrants wait for processing in the country where they are, although there is no guarantee of a visa.
The three countries will have to "assist vulnerable refugees to get the help they need" to obtain legal status there while they await "lawful pathways to other countries, including the United States," the State Department official said.
But in colonial downtown Guatemala City, Diego Berrios, a 23-year-old Venezuelan, asks for money to continue his journey north despite the start of the migration program.
He arrived in Guatemala a few days ago and hopes to reach the US-Mexico border with his wife and daughters, aged one and eight, as soon as possible.
"Here in Guatemala, it is just a transit point," he told AFP.
Oviedo warns that "there is still no clarity" on how the processing centers will operate and what the procedures will be.
"We don't know how long they are going to take, what is going to happen to people who are denied these regular permits. There is a lot of uncertainty," she said.