Last month, the Biden Administration announced ongoing discussions with governments in Latin America to establish Regional Processing Centers (RPCs) throughout the Western Hemisphere to “reduce irregular migration and facilitate safe, orderly, humane, and lawful pathways from the Americas.” Few public details have emerged, but the available information paints a picture of an initiative that could transform U.S. migration management in our hemisphere. 

Here are 10 ways Biden’s Regional Processing Centers could affect U.S. immigration and our recommendations for maximizing their impact. 

1). Humanitarian processing in the Western Hemisphere is inflexible and outdated.

The movement of people in the 21st century is continually changing and growing. Our neat silos of protection designed decades ago do not meet the complex demands of displaced people. The many internally displaced, stateless, vulnerable, and frustrated migrants in the region need an immigration system that meets them where they are rather than requiring them to make long, timely, and often dangerous journeys. 

Regional Processing Centers offer an opportunity for transformative change in how the Western Hemisphere manages and respects the movement of people. The efforts could significantly minimize irregular migration and expand legal pathways for refugees, parolees, temporary workers, and permanent entrants to the U.S. and partner nations. Rather than forcing migrants to traverse through countries, RPCs constructed across the hemisphere will allow them to avail themselves of established global pathways to the U.S. 

2). RPCs are the dynamic, multimodal DMVs of the future. 

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices provide an apt comparison. Individuals from all regions — rural, urban, and suburban — must visit DMVs for various reasons. The DMV requires every person to bring identification and specific documents supporting their respective needs, and eventually, the DMV gets each person in the right line. Unlike the DMV, RPCs will have a range of experts available to help individuals find the right pathway, acquire required documentation, and provide a warm hand-off to their next step.

The Regional Processing Center model should take a cue from the DMV by providing online and in-person options for migrants seeking myriad pathways. The legal channels should include referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), access to current parole programs (CHNV) and future parole programs for family reunification, labor pathways, designated pathways to third countries, and the family-based immigration channels. 

The State Department stated, “Once fully operational, the RPCs will make it easier for migrants to access lawful pathways from where they are and avoid putting their lives and their life savings into the hands of criminal actors.” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) agrees, saying, “They are also designed to cut smugglers out of the equation by giving people access to protection and legal pathways earlier in their migration journey, and eventually before they cross international lines at all.” 

3). Coordination is key.

The RPCs will be led by international organizations like UNHCR and IOM that will work closely with U.S. government agencies like PRM, DHS, USCIS, and USAID, and local government leadership. Reporting indicates that Colombia and Guatemala are considering hosting the two initial centers. Other countries are also reportedly interested in hosting (we will discuss the benefits of being a host country in an upcoming piece).

UNHCR will likely lead the humanitarian protection screening process for resettlement eligibility for USRAP. As with the RPCs, which rely on close coordination and partnership with stakeholders, the screening tools are being developed in consultation with government and civil society stakeholders. IOM’s involvement in the screening process will be critical because it will oversee the complementary — non-humanitarian-based — pathways like parole and labor.

A network of RPCs across countries must lean on local actors to maximize community-based knowledge to educate and preliminarily identify potential beneficiaries. For example, mobile and brick-and-mortar touch points throughout the region could help educate potential beneficiaries about their options and pre-screen them for referral to an RPC. The programs should leverage existing infrastructure and community knowledge to maximize impact.

Success will rest in no small part on fair, equitable, and robust outreach and participation opportunities. This will require a sophisticated communications operation and legal assistance. It is critical to strategically educate communities with materials on available pathways and eligibility in language-accessible and culturally appropriate means. At the same time, access to legal services will be necessary for people to  understand the process and their rights and have a fair opportunity to access protection and other pathways. 

4). A priority should be expediting refugee claims in the Western hemisphere.

Individuals who arrive at an RPC with a valid claim to refugee status should have their case processed quickly. Efficient processing of resettlement claims is critical, and thanks to the administration’s recently ramped-up timelines, it is also doable. This process will maintain the integrity of security vetting while implementing proven efficiencies to get people to safety faster and alleviate pressures on host countries. The administration notes it is currently processing cases in 19 countries in the Western Hemisphere and has already begun using its new expedited model.

For those without ties to the U.S., referral to third countries is an important component of how the Regional Processing Center could change immigration in the Western hemisphere. Not all eligible migrants must come to the U.S. and may be more likely to succeed in a third country. Many partners must balance the benefits and responsibilities of migration.

5). Expanding access to labor pathways should be in the not-so-distant future.

After a refugee determination, the screening should shift to eligibility for various parole programs and family reunification pathways. But most importantly, screening must continue to assess potential access to labor pathways, like the H-2B and H-2A visa in the U.S., the Economic Mobility Pathways Pilot (EMPP) in Canada, and seasonal worker programs in Spain. 

For the RPCs to capture the full breadth of mixed migration in the hemisphere, we must prioritize those seeking work opportunities. Initial screenings should include questions assessing English language proficiency, job experience, training, education level, and other metrics that could lead to travel documents and job offers for a work visa. Suppose a person appears eligible based on language, work experience, and education. In that case, the person can be referred to partners working on EMPP to match a candidate with a job opportunity. 

The international system for referring refugees is decades old, but referrals to labor pathways are very new and need significant expansion. RPCs can turbocharge the creation of new infrastructure to allow for mixed-migration flows in the coming decades. 

6). Tapping into private sponsorship and the Welcome Corps is a game-changer.

CBS reported that Americans submitted over 1.5 million applications to sponsor named beneficiaries from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. This remarkable level of interest is stifled by the (inadequate) 30,000 slots available for this program each month. 

One way to capitalize on high numbers of volunteer sponsors is to tap into the Welcome Corps, the new private sponsorship program launched in January 2023. This requires contacting people who have signed up to sponsor individuals under the parole Process for Cuban, Haitian, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (P4CHNV) and asking them to consider sponsoring through Welcome Corps. 

This innovative use of Welcome Corps, which allows sponsor groups to welcome refugee newcomers by securing and preparing initial housing, enrolling children in school, and aiding in employment, will address both protection needs and meet the desire of Americans to sponsor and welcome people seeking refuge. Expanding the Welcome Corps to channel humanitarian parole applications would also need increased regional processing capacity to meet protection eligibility requirements.

7). Committing to a dynamic digital approach is an important determinant of success.

A robust and seamless digital infrastructure is central to Regional Processing Centers success in improving U.S. immigration. We must allow for the adaptation and easy integration of additional screening tools and processes and build an adaptable system to accommodate different countries and their specific requirements. 

It’s unclear what tools we may need, so we must be able to layer on top of existing digital tools, like CBP One, to stay ahead of migration trends and needs. Overall, the focus on versatile digital tools reflects the recognition that migration management is a complex and evolving field. By building a system that can easily accommodate new screening tools, adapt to different contexts, prioritize privacy, and incorporate the requirements of various countries will enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of migration management efforts. The technology must be user-friendly, adaptable, and accessible.

8). We still need asylum.

Any practical and principled system acknowledges people are  — and will continue to be  — on the move. People must be able to continue to ask for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, as U.S. law and international obligations require. This plan helps inoculate attacks on legal and human rights while working to ensure access to protection and other pathways while people are closer to home.

9). We still need to invest significantly in Central and South America. 

As national governments work with the U.S. to address migration needs, they must support populations who wait in-country while their eligibility is reviewed and pathway requirements are fulfilled. New investments will be necessary to create secure environments for refugees and migrating populations. 

At the same time, national governments must balance the security needs of their nationals — from employment to healthcare to housing — and facilitate political and civic support for hosting migrant populations. This will require ongoing foreign investment in domestic infrastructure to address the root causes of migration, provide livelihoods, secure environments, transparent governance, and support initiatives to prevent friction with foreign populations.

10). “Adaptability” is the most important determinant of RPC success. 

We are in the early stages of this process, but the more pathways we facilitate, the better the outcome will be. Facilities promising safe mobility are the future, and coordination between government agencies and international partners is central to their success. Biden’s Regional Processing Centers can transform U.S. immigration if tensions between actors are minimized, and flexibility is at the heart of every effort. This will require a “center of gravity” and a space for different actors to come together and design an effective, scalable, sustainable, and replicable processing system.

Stay tuned for a full Niskanen policy brief on RPCs coming soon