US explores refugee program for non-Mexican asylum seekers in Mexico

By Ted Hesson and Dave Graham

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing a new U.S. refugee program for some non-Mexican asylum seekers waiting in Mexico, four sources said, as part of President Joe Biden’s attempts to create more legal pathways for migration.

The program would likely be open to Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan refugees in Mexico, the sources said. Migrants would have to prove they were in Mexico before June 6 to be eligible, one of the sources said.

The sources – a US official, a Mexican official and two people familiar with the matter who all spoke on condition of anonymity – stressed that the matter remains under discussion and no final decision has been made. It was not clear how many people could benefit from such a program.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants from these four countries have passed through Mexico en route to the United States during the political and economic upheavals of recent years, straining the resources of both countries and exerting political pressure on Biden, a Democrat seeking re-election in 2024.

The plan under discussion would allow eligible migrants approved for refugee status to enter through the US refugee resettlement program, which is only available to overseas applicants, the sources said. Unlike most migrants who seek asylum after entering the United States, refugees receive immediate work authorization and government benefits such as housing and employment assistance.

Refugees using the US resettlement program can apply to become permanent residents within a year, offering more stability than other options. To qualify, they must establish that they face persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

In a statement, Mexico’s foreign ministry said it was in constant communication with the United States about expanding labor mobility and refugee protection. To this end, he said he held discussions on various programs and policies, while always safeguarding national sovereignty.

However, Mexico has no agreement with the United States, the ministry added.


The Biden administration has opened up new avenues for migrants to enter the United States legally as part of a broader strategy to discourage people from illegally crossing the US-Mexico border.

Migrants pending in Mexico can apply for entry into the United States on a smartphone app and later apply for asylum, but the app’s time slots fill up quickly. Under another Biden program, Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans can apply to enter the United States by air if they have American sponsors.

But these routes do not offer the same benefits enjoyed by refugees or a direct path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

In April, the Biden administration said it was aiming to admit 40,000 Latin American and Caribbean refugees in fiscal years 2023 and 2024, doubling a previous goal. As of May 31, around 3,400 had arrived, indicating that the pace would need to pick up sharply to reach the target.

Some refugee funders worry that the focus on Latin America could slow processing from other parts of the world, including refugees already awaiting approval.

The initiative being discussed would be a “priority two” program for refugees, the sources said, similar to the one open to Afghans in 2021. Such programs allow certain groups of people to directly apply for refugee status without need a recommendation from the United Nations.

Despite the talks, Mexico has significant concerns, the Mexican official said.

If the program encourages more migrants to enter Mexico, it could strain the country’s already limited resources for dealing with migrants, the official said.

A significant concern for Mexico is where migrants would be processed, the official said.

If the United States used its existing consular facilities, the plan could work, but any new US center in Mexico for this purpose would be politically charged, the official added.

The pending decisions will also require the participation of Mexico’s new foreign minister, Alicia Barcena, who has yet to be confirmed in the post, the official said.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg, Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

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