WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden commended Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez for his country's collaboration with the United States and Canada to establish migration hubs in Latin America where asylum seekers fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries can apply for protection.
The two leaders sat down at the White House on Friday for wide-ranging talks on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, climate change and other issues. But efforts by the U.S. and Spain to cooperate on asylum processing loomed large over the discussion as the Biden administration rolls out new immigration measures now that COVID-19 immigration restrictions have ended.
The new efforts are designed to crack down on illegal border crossings while opening legal pathways to give migrants incentives to apply for asylum online where they are, instead of making the dangerous journey to the border.
Migrants caught illegally crossing the southern U.S. border cannot return for five years, and they face criminal prosecution if they do. And migrants will be barred from seeking asylum at the border if they do not first ask for protection in a country they traveled through or apply online.
A major piece of the expanded legal pathway is the creation of processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala and up to 100 others in the Western Hemisphere where migrants can go to apply to enter the U.S., Spain or Canada.
“We’re both facing the challenges of migration in the Western Hemisphere,” Biden told Sanchez at the start of the Oval Office meeting.
It was a huge step for the White House to get Spain and Canada to agree to take in asylum seekers from Latin America. And it helps reinforce the Biden administration’s argument that the current migration quandary facing the Americas is a global problem that needs a global solution — much like the refugee crises that have impacted Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine in recent years.
The State Department on Thursday announced a website where asylum seekers can now find information on the process and will eventually be able to request appointments.
The U.S. has increasingly seen migrants arrive at its southern border who are from China, Ukraine, Haiti, Russia and other nations far from Latin America and who are increasingly family groups and children traveling alone. Thirty years ago, by contrast, illegal crossings were almost always single adults from Mexico who were easily returned over the border.
Spain, though it has high overall unemployment, needs workers for agriculture and other hard-to-fill fields, and it will be able to accept migrants who want to go there and have needed skills.
The Spanish ministry has said the pathway will only apply to those who have already received international protection status. That means the migrants it accepts will need to be considered refugees and will be treated in much the same way that Syrian asylum seekers, traveling via Turkey, have been treated by Spain.
“Spain and the U.S., we have common interests about democracy, prosperity and safe, regular and orderly migration patterns," Sanchez said.
Plans for the processing centers to be established in Guatemala and Colombia were announced last month, but the centers have yet to begin operating. Once up and running, they are expected to process thousands of applicants a month. United Nations organizations will operate the centers, but U.S. officials will be present as well to help with processing of applications.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the White House expects that the processing centers will open in the “relatively near future."
While Biden predicted this week that the situation at the border could be “chaotic for a while,” his administration is looking to discourage migrants from paying smuggling operations to help them journey to the U.S., particularly through the Darien Gap. Officials hope that by cracking down at the border and opening up other ways to the U.S., they will be able to bring a measure of order.
The coronavirus restrictions, known as Title 42, were a Trump administration endeavor that went into effect in March 2020 amid the global pandemic. Title 42 allowed border officials to turn away migrants to help stop the spread of COVID-19. But there were concerns the policies were put into place merely to keep people out.
While Title 42 was used to deny asylum more than 2.8 million times, it carried no legal consequences, which encouraged repeat attempts by migrants to enter the U.S. The public health emergency officially ended on Thursday night, and with it the restrictions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also high on the agenda for Biden and Sánchez, two NATO allies.
Sánchez told reporters following the meeting that he and Biden discussed their countries' continuing efforts to support Ukraine as Russia's invasion grinds on. Sánchez recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, both of whom have put forward ideas to end the conflict.
White House officials have dismissed China’s 12-point peace plan, and called on Beijing to use its influence to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war.
Sánchez said that Spain, which will assume the rotating presidency of the European Council in July, is committed to a “lasting and just peace” to resolve the Ukraine crisis. He made clear that he sides with Biden and other Western allies in condemning Russian aggression.
“Make no mistake, in this war there is an aggressor and victim,” Sánchez said. “And in this war the aggressor is President Putin.”
On another subject, Spain has called on the U.S. to conduct further cleanup of contaminated soil left after a nuclear accident in 1966. A midair collision dumped four U.S. hydrogen bombs near a southern Spanish village. None of the bombs exploded.
Kirby said the White House anticipates negotiations between the two countries on the matter will begin soon.
Associated Press writers Renata Brito in Barcelona, Spain, and Ciarán Giles and Jennifer O’Mahony in Madrid contributed to this report.