Seven months after the announced launch of the Safe Mobility Office (SMO) initiative, data exclusively obtained by the Niskanen Center shows that approximately 2,500 refugees have arrived in the U.S. so far as part of the program. More than 10,000 migrants have already been referred to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) and are undergoing refugee processing — many of whom will be resettled in the United States in the next few months.
Given that SMOs are still in their early stages, these findings suggest the program is already moderately successful. Especially considering President Biden’s fiscal year 2024 refugee plan calls for up to 50,000 refugees to be resettled from Latin America and the Caribbean, the early progress proves that the SMO initiative can lead to expanded resettlement in the hemisphere. This region’s scale-up and attention to processing are impressive, considering that just 6,000 refugees were resettled from those regions in FY23.
SMOs operate in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Columbia. The initiative is far-reaching and among the most significant investments ever made in the physical and digital infrastructure to manage migration in the hemisphere. By proactively setting up SMOs, the administration hopes to provide a tangible deterrent against perilous and unpredictable journeys, urging prospective migrants to explore lawful channels as a more viable and secure alternative instead of subjecting themselves to smugglers and traffickers.
SMOs seek to address the complex drivers of irregular migration by engaging migrants closer to their homes, preventing their dangerous journey north to the U.S. while providing access to work visas, refugee resettlement, and parole pathways. The SMOs screen, process, and refer people for safe and legal pathways to enter the United States and other countries, substituting the need to open oneself up to traffickers and smugglers.
The SMO initiative is ambitious, and that’s imperative given the scale of migration underway in the Western Hemisphere. Seven months into the enormous international and regional coordination and processing required to sustain such an effort, the refugee resettlement pathway has emerged as the most viable.
Last month, the Niskanen Center chronicled the Biden administration’s progress in rebuilding the refugee program that was decimated by years of Trump administration policies and the COVID-19 pandemic. The current administration has made a series of technological advancements, hiring surges, and policy innovations, leading to the refugee program being at its most robust in decades.
The most critical development is concurrent processing. The screening process for vetting refugees is the most rigorous of any traveler coming to the U.S. For years, refugees have gone through that process sequentially, which led to processing times ballooning to many years. The Biden administration has pioneered a new strategy to expedite the process by doing various screening checks simultaneously.
Though 2,500 is a relatively low resettlement number relative to the vast number of migrants seeking opportunity, the initiative is promising. Further, refugee resettlement is far superior to parole, which offers only a two-year status with limited access to benefits. Alternatively, asylum eligibility is extremely limited, and processing times often exceed five years. Refugees resettled in the U.S. enjoy permanent legal certainty and access to public and private benefits to ensure their successful transition.
Despite the USRAP progress, the reality remains that many people in Latin America and the Caribbean will not qualify for humanitarian status. Combined with high asylum denial rates and the annual regional resettlement ceiling, we can expect high border arrivals — 240,000 arrivals in October — to continue unless the demand for more flexible, accessible pathways is met elsewhere.
Temporary work pathways like the C-1/D, the H-2B, and the H-2A are vital. Additionally, cultural and educational opportunities through the J visa category should be expanded. SMOs will struggle to fully address migration in the hemisphere unless the labor pathways are layered in addition to the refugee pathway. The SMO initiative will be a USRAP success, but the larger question remains regarding how to scale labor pathways.
Safe Mobility Offices are still a new endeavor and require intricate coordination between governments and international bodies to be successful. They are also a significant opportunity for creative policymaking to address the vast movement of people in the Western Hemisphere. But standing up the programs and pathways necessary to substitute the lure of smugglers and traffickers will take time, energy, resources, and policy changes.
Despite criticism from advocates regarding the program’s relatively slow pace, the focus of these first few months was the rather complicated process of establishing the programs. Now that this has been done successfully, the goal over the next several months is to reduce processing times and increase arrivals markedly.
SMOs are not a catch-all solution; they represent one piece of a larger hemisphere strategy to manage migration. The arrival of the first 2,500 refugees indicates that the administration is successfully scaling resettlement through SMOs in the region, providing a tangible pathway to the U.S. for refugees in the hemisphere.