The first Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs) are being established in Guatemala, Colombia, and Costa Rica through partnerships between host countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United States, and NGOs. These SMOs will serve as central hubs that connect eligible refugees and migrants to potential humanitarian, labor, family reunification, and other pathways to partner nations such as the U.S., Canada, and Spain. 

The SMO initiative could transform hemispheric approaches to humanitarian protection and migration management, providing new opportunities to facilitate access to regular pathways while reducing irregular migration and preserving territorial access to asylum. While humanitarian protection is SMOs’ priority, identifying legal pathways to work visas for prospective migrants is also critical. One legal pathway that policymakers should consider is the increased use of the rarely-discussed yet highly flexible C-1/D visa

The C-1/D visa is a combination visa that allows qualified migrants to enter the U.S. temporarily to work aboard commercial sea vessels, like cruises. Expanded use of the C-1/D visa, either through SMO-based recruitment or local training facilities in the hemisphere, is a significant economic opportunity for migrants seeking employment. It is also an opportunity for the growing cruise industry, where it is estimated that 31.5 million passengers will board cruise ships this year. 

How Safe Mobility Offices work

The challenge of 21st-century hemispheric migration requires outside-the-box domestic policy innovation and sophisticated coordination and execution regionally and internationally. Through digital platforms, call centers, and in-person resources, SMOs are positioned to meet refugees and migrants and help people access humanitarian protection and complementary pathways closer to home so they do not need to undertake dangerous, lengthy routes northward.  

Conversations about SMOs generally center on protection pathways like the U.S. refugee program or the parole programs offered to certain Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, and the newly announced family reunification programs. Still, temporary labor pathways are also important and dedicated screening procedures for labor programs, such as the H-2A (agricultural) visa and H-2B (non-agricultural, seasonal work) visa, are crucial. 

Furthermore, SMOs are well-positioned geographically to amplify the benefits of the C-1/D visa, pairing migrants with skills to work authorization for cruise ship employment. 

The untapped promise of the C-1/D visa

The C-1/D is a combination visa for those who must board a ship as a crew member and travel through the U.S. to get to the vessel. The visa permits temporary stays of up to 29 days in the United States as part of employment. ​The C-1 visa allows for transit and the D visa allows for work aboard a commercial vessel or airline. Typical applicants for the C-1/D visa fill a range of positions with varying skill levels ranging from sea vessel captains, engineers, and deckhands to lifeguards, cooks, beauticians, and other cruise service staff options. 

The SMO model recognizes that some migrants arriving at the southern border are searching for a legal pathway to work to generate income. Instead of claiming asylum — a cumbersome, time-consuming process — those migrants would benefit from a temporary work visa, and the SMO is where they can collect information about pathways and avail themselves to qualified recruiters and employers in Canada, the U.S., and Spain. 

Expanding the use of  C-1/D visa at SMOs would allow the U.S. to offer a legal pathway to a Congressionally-approved visa program without a cap. The visa would provide an essential source of labor for a rebounding cruise industry and could be renewed many times over, creating multi-year employment opportunities. The OECD finds migrants could stay in their home country and avoid long-term emigration if they can find stable work through temporary, circular migration — which is possible through intermittent cruise ship employment. 

For migrants arriving at SMOs searching for work opportunities, recruiting and screening for the C-1/D is prudent because many overlapping skills and jobs fall under the same visa type: hospitality, tourism, logistics, and entertainment. By building in screening procedures for jobs across cruise industries, the SMO could quickly process migrants with the necessary qualifications. And by filling critical labor shortages, the migrants could boost the economy by supporting the hospitality, tourism, and transportation industries as they bounce back from pandemic-era declines. Migrants who can access the visa offer valuable work experience, cultural understanding, and language skills, and this could serve as a stepping stone toward other regular immigration pathways to the U.S. or other countries. 

A potential pilot? Colombia

This proposal is well-timed, given the coming launch of SMOs in Colombia, where the cruise industry is experiencing a significant boom. 

Expanding C-1/D visa services to the SMO in Colombia would also provide a necessary respite from historically high levels of irregular migration from Colombia. According to the latest data, Colombians have constituted over 130,000 encounters with U.S. Customs & Border Protection in 2023 alone, making them the second largest group of irregular migrants from South America this fiscal year behind Venezuelans. Since at least some of this trend is due to Colombia’s stagnant economy, offering these services at the new SMO could help stymie migration in the hemisphere and be a gesture of goodwill to Colombia as it partners with the U.S. and others to bring order to migration flows. 

Moreover, Colombia is also well-positioned geographically to supply cruise workers. The Atlantic coast of the country is close to the most popular destinations in the Caribbean, and the port city of Cartagena is itself a common transit destination. Colombia also has a coastline on the Pacific Ocean which can be accessed by cruises traveling through the Panama Canal. As the SMO initiative is scaled up, partnerships between Europe and other governments with burgeoning cruise industries could be incorporated. 

Labor needs

An estimated 31.5 million passengers will board cruise ships this year. Passenger numbers are expected to continue climbing steadily over the next few years in a sign that the industry has regained strength after being devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Three major cruise lines — Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and Celebrity — all reported their highest single booking days ever during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend last year. 

But while cruise bookings continue apace, the number of workers is struggling to meet cruise demand. The cruise industry is particularly susceptible to labor shortages due to the work’s seasonal nature, the crews’ multinational structure, and the time-consuming requirements eligibility to work aboard the ship. Because nearly two-thirds of solo cruise passengers book less than six months before departure, labor demand on cruises often fluctuates unpredictably, leaving them scrambling for labor at the last minute. Last year, crew member shortages even led to canceled cruises. In fact, as an incentive, Carnival offers reimbursements for visa-related costs for C-1/D holders. 

By offering C-1/D visa services at the Colombian SMO, the U.S. could reduce hiring wait times and match Colombian economic migrants with roles that provide them with valuable experience. Facilitating crew members’ smooth entry and exit through visa expansion would foster greater efficiency in crew rotations and operational logistics, contributing to increased productivity and revenue generation. 

 “Preparing for life at sea” job training program in the Caribbean also creates more opportunities for partnership between SMOs, participating governments, and NGOs. Training the next generation of cruise ship employees is in the best interests of U.S. stakeholders and regional economic entities, and cruise operators have incentives to build training and recruitment facilities. And given the 29-day visa, there are short training opportunities in the U.S. before the ship departs. Moreover, trainees learning aboard the ship are also included as visa eligible, so those interested in gaining experience could access the opportunities aboard the ships via the C-1/D. 

C-1/D visas also come with built-in protections for international and American workers alike. They require an interview to ensure that the applicant’s employment is legal, reputable, and safe via documentation provisions. The nationality of the ship is irrelevant to the provision of this visa. 


For migrants with skills that qualify for the C-1/D visa, obtaining work authorization and employment is far preferable to dangerously transiting through several countries. Working on a cruise ship fosters much-needed economic activity, enriches cross-cultural engagement, and provides migrants with the opportunity to generate wages through a viable legal pathway. 

While no single pathway is a panacea for all seeking migration, protection, or economic opportunity, this C-1/D proposal unlocks another complementary track that certain qualified migrants can utilize. Every additional pathway screened for at an SMO further reduces the incentive to journey north. When used in conjunction with other pathways, this proposal could help provide additional relief to refugees, migrants, and U.S. border authorities. 

SMOs are an opportunity to improve access to existing pathways while creating unique opportunities for new pathways. The SMO model is inherently collaborative between governments, international organizations, and domestic, on-the-ground NGOs. It’s potentially the future of mixed migration management in the hemisphere, helping people close to their home, disincentivizing the dangerous journey north, and fostering new legal pathways.  

One of the first steps forward should be offering C-1/D visa services at the SMO in Colombia, signaling to our Latin American partners that the U.S. is dedicated to pursuing new policies that will benefit host countries, refugees and migrants, and American citizens alike.