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U.S. planning to refer some migrants for resettlement in Greece and Italy under Biden initiative

Mayorkas on drop in illegal border crossings
Mayorkas discusses dramatic decrease in illegal border crossings 05:49

The Biden administration is planning to refer some migrants in Latin America for resettlement in Greece and Italy as part of another effort to discourage people in the region from traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border, two people familiar with the government's plans told CBS News.

The initiative would involve Greece and Italy welcoming migrants processed at immigration offices that the Biden administration set up last year in four Latin American countries to screen migrants who hope to reach the U.S., the sources said, requesting anonymity to discuss arrangements that have yet to be announced.

The centers, officially known as Safe Mobility Offices, allow certain migrants in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guatemala to apply to come to the U.S. or other countries legally. Under the new arrangements, Greece and Italy would join Canada and Spain in resettling some of those processed at the offices. One of the sources said Italy and Greece would likely accept a relatively small number of migrants, roughly 500 or fewer each.

The offices are one component of a broader Biden administration strategy to reduce illegal crossings at the U.S. border by offering would-be migrants legal immigration opportunities. Over the past year, the administration has paired those programs with tougher enforcement measures, including a rule that presumes migrants are ineligible for U.S. asylum if they failed to seek protection in a third country. 

Unlawful crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border are down by more than 50% in May compared to the record high reported in December — a trend administration officials have attributed to their policies and efforts by Mexican officials to stop migrants from traveling north. To blunt a potential spike in migration, President Biden is also preparing to issue an executive action as soon as next week that would bar most asylum claims when illegal crossings soar, sources familiar with the internal deliberations told CBS News.

Migrants seeking to enter the U.S. through a barbed-wire fence installed along the Rio Grande are driven away with pepper spray shots by Texas National Guard agents at the border with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on May 13, 2024.
Migrants seeking to enter the U.S. through a barbed-wire fence installed along the Rio Grande are driven away with pepper spray shots by Texas National Guard agents at the border with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on May 13, 2024. HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

A spokesperson for the State Department said the Safe Mobility Offices have "enabled a six-fold increase in the number of refugees resettled from the Western Hemisphere."

"Given the success of the program," the spokesperson added, "we are in diplomatic discussions with other countries about joining this initiative to expand lawful pathways for resettlement but have no additional information to share at this time."

On May 20, U.S. officials met with diplomats from Canada, Italy, Spain and the countries hosting the Safe Mobility Offices to discuss the initiative, according to internal Department of Homeland Security documents. In an interview with CBS News last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared to reference the agreement with Greece.

"We work with Canada, Spain, and just recently, Greece, to build lawful pathways for individuals to arrive in their countries, out of the hands of smugglers who just seek to exploit these individuals for profit," Mayorkas said.

Representatives for the Greek and Italian governments did not respond to requests for comment.

After this story was first published, Italian government sources told Ansa, one of the main news agencies in Italy, that Rome was studying a migration agreement with the U.S., but they described it as a refugee swap. The sources said it would involve only "20 Venezuelan refugees of Italian origin."

"The hypothesis of a reciprocity agreement is currently being studied, according to which the U.S. would host refugees who are in Libya and desire to go to Europe, while some European Mediterranean States would host a few dozen South American refugees," the sources told the Italian outlet.

Greece's migration minister, meanwhile, said, "There is neither an agreement nor a request from the US to resettle legal immigrants in Greece."

The plans to divert some Latin American migrants to Greece and Italy highlight an increasing trend by the U.S. and other Western countries to manage intensifying migration crises around the world through international deals.

Just like the U.S. has faced unprecedented levels of migration to its southern border, Italy and Greece have struggled with the arrival of large numbers of migrants fleeing wars and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East over the past decade. The migration crises faced by both European countries have upended their politics and underscored the often-deadly nature of journeys in the Mediterranean Sea.

Still, Greece and Italy are, in many cases, transit countries for migrants hoping to settle elsewhere in Europe. And both countries have aging populations and significant labor shortages, creating an incentive for them to resettle foreign workers.

First announced in May 2023, the Safe Mobility Offices are regional brick-and-mortar hubs for the U.S. to determine whether migrants qualify for different options to enter the U.S. legally, including through traditional refugee resettlement, family visa programs, work visas or an immigration benefit known as humanitarian parole. Migrants have also been vetted for resettlement in Canada and Spain.

The U.S. has resettled roughly 10,000 migrants who were processed at Safe Mobility Offices through the Refugee Admissions Program, which requires beneficiaries to prove they're fleeing persecution due to their political views, religion or other factors, according to internal government data obtained by CBS News.

Who can be processed at the Safe Mobility Offices depends on the host country. The office in Colombia accepts applications from Cuban, Haitian and Venezuelan migrants. The Costa Rica-based office only processes Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. In Ecuador, the U.S. center accepts cases filed by Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Colombians. The office in Guatemala only processes Guatemalans.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include the reporting in Italian media and the Greek migration minister's comments.

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