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U.S. to create new immigration program for Ecuadorians aimed at discouraging border crossings

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Washington — The Biden administration will be opening a new legal immigration pathway for certain immigrants from Ecuador in a bid to dissuade people in the South American nation from trekking to the U.S.-Mexico border, according to internal federal government documents obtained by CBS News.

The administration will be setting up a family reunification program that will allow eligible Ecuadorians to fly to the U.S. and apply for temporary work permits if their U.S.-based relatives have sponsored them for an immigrant visa, according to the Department of Homeland Security documents.

The initiative will be the latest Biden administration attempt to reduce illegal border crossings, which soared to a yearly high in September, by offering would-be migrants expedited pathways to enter the U.S. legally. Over the past two years, officials have revived or created similar family reunification programs for immigrants from Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras.

DHS officials, the documents said, hope to "provide an alternative to dangerous irregular migration" through the policy, which was confirmed later on Wednesday by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

"Establishing this process for certain Ecuadorian nationals will ensure more families can access lawful pathways rather than placing themselves at the mercy of smugglers to make the dangerous journey," Mayorkas said in a statement.

Ecuadorian migration to the U.S. border soars

The program will also mark the first time the administration creates a program specifically for Ecuadorians, who have journeyed to the U.S. southern border in record numbers over the past year. In the first 11 months of fiscal year 2023, Border Patrol apprehended nearly 99,000 Ecuadorians who entered the U.S. without authorization, a 312% spike from fiscal year 2022 and an annual record, federal data show.

In 2021, when there was another spike in Ecuadorian arrivals along the U.S. border, most migrants from Ecuador were flying into Mexico before entering the U.S. illegally. But after Mexico ended visa-free travel for Ecuadorians later that year, more of them have sought to reach the U.S. by crossing Panama's once-impenetrable Darién Gap on foot. Nearly 50,000 Ecuadorian migrants have crossed the Darién jungle in 2023 alone, the second-highest tally of any nationality, according to Panamanian government data.

An Ecuadorian migrant family helps each other wade through the river in the wild and dangerous jungle on Nov. 20, 2022, in Darién Gap, Colombia.
An Ecuadorian migrant family helps each other wade through the river in the wild and dangerous jungle on Nov. 20, 2022, in Darién Gap, Colombia. Jan Sochor / Getty Images

In recent years, Ecuadorians have faced a struggling economy and an unprecedented wave of violent crime, fueled by drug cartels and gangs. In August, presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio was shot to death while campaigning. The State Department advises Americans not to visit certain areas of the country due to risk of being assaulted, kidnapped or even murdered.

How the new program will work

To qualify for the family reunification program, Ecuadorians must have family members in the U.S. who are American citizens or permanent residents. The process begins with U.S. citizens or legal residents sponsoring their relatives in Ecuador for an immigrant visa.

U.S. officials will then send out invitations to citizens and permanent residents whose visa sponsorships have been approved so they can request for the relatives to come to the U.S. much more quickly than they would have under the family-based visa system, which is massively backlogged and numerically capped. 

Many immigrants with U.S. family members often have to wait years — and in the most extreme cases, more than a decade — for family-based visas to become available.

If selected and approved for the family reunification program, Ecuadorians would be permitted to enter the U.S. under the humanitarian parole authority, without having to wait for a visa. While in the U.S., they can work legally under the parole authority and wait for their visa to become available. Once that happens, they can become permanent residents.

Another parole program 

The Biden administration has used the parole authority at an unprecedented scale as part of its effort to divert migration away from the U.S. southern border.

In addition to the family reunification programs, the administration has created two sponsorship initiatives that have allowed hundreds of thousands of Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Ukrainians to enter the U.S. under the parole authority. It is also using the parole law to process 1,500 asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border each day who secured an appointment to enter the country through a phone app.

After officials paired those programs with stricter asylum rules and an increase in deportations this spring, illegal entries along the southern border plummeted to a two-year low. But migrant crossings spiked there in the late summer and early fall, testing that strategy.

In September, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 200,000 migrants, more than doubling the tally in June, when illegal crossings dropped to the lowest level since President Biden took office.

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