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Federal officers remove handcuffs from men before releasing them through a gate in a border wall to Tijuana, Mexico, in San Diego, on March 15.Gregory Bull/The Associated Press

The United States will ramp up deportations while also expanding legal pathways for would-be migrants as it braces for a possible spike in illegal border crossings when COVID-19 restrictions are set to end in May, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The U.S. will double or triple the number of deportation flights to some countries and aim to process migrants crossing the border illegally “in a matter of days,” the U.S. State Department and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said in a fact sheet about their plans.

At the same time, the U.S. will expand legal pathways for migrants, encouraging them to apply for entry at two new processing centres in Guatemala and Colombia without having to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The centres, with the support of the United Nations, would handle refugee processing as the United States has pledged to open more spots for those seeking protection in Western Hemisphere. Canada and Spain have also said they would accept migrants through the centres, U.S. officials said.

The centres will also process family reunification applications, a program already available to Cubans and Haitians that will now be expanded to nationals of Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, U.S. officials said. The program allows certain migrants with U.S. relatives to enter and work legally while they await their U.S. visas.

The mix of immigration enforcement measures and new legal ways to enter the country is part of U.S. President Joe Biden’s plan to address a possible increase in illegal immigration when COVID-19 border restrictions, in place since 2020, are expected to end on May 11.

Biden, a Democrat, has struggled politically with record numbers of migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally and gradually toughened his approach to border enforcement.

Republicans have said Biden has failed to curb crossings and want a return to the more hard line approach of former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Biden, who is seeking re-election in 2024, has tried to tread a careful line, angering some Democrats and immigration advocates by adopting more restrictive measures while at the same time promising a more humane approach than Trump.

“Our border is not open and will not be open after May 11,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a news conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Thursday.

Biden’s plan for the lifting of the COVID restrictions, known as Title 42, centres on a new regulation expected to be finalized in the coming weeks that resembles Trump-era policies blocked by U.S. courts.

The regulation would deny asylum for migrants who passed through other nations without seeking protection there first or who failed to use U.S. legal options for entry.

The Biden administration says this mix of deterrence and legal options has worked in the past to reduce the number of border crossers.

Earlier this year, after the United States began rapidly expelling Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans back to Mexico under the Title 42 restrictions, the number of migrants caught crossing from those countries dropped dramatically.

Under the post-Title 42 plans, the U.S. intends to continue to send those migrants to Mexico, a U.S. official said during a call with reporters.

In January, Biden launched a program that allows 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela with U.S. sponsors to enter the country by air. Those slots will remain open and migrants will also be able to apply for an appointment to approach the border via an online app.

Part of the plan is to increase the number of available appointments through the app, known as CBP One, the Biden administration said. Migrants have said appointments currently fill up within minutes each day.

To discourage Cubans from trying to enter the U.S. via perilous boat journeys, DHS said any Cubans caught attempting to travel by sea will now be ineligible for the humanitarian parole program.

The Biden administration is not planning to detain migrant families, Mayorkas said, echoing comments made by a top official earlier this month, but could use an “enhanced” form of monitoring if they are released into the U.S.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that the United States is also discussing increased refugee processing in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

U.S. officials on Thursday did not name those countries but said discussions were ongoing with other nations. Costa Rica’s migration office said it had no knowledge of the U.S. plans.

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