President Biden’s immigration advisers are discussing proposals to set up European-style reception centers along the Mexican border that would transform the way asylum seekers are processed and potentially curb the large-scale release of migrants into the United States, according to administration officials and others with knowledge of the conversations.

The proposals remain in development, these people said, but the reception center model represents a possible breakthrough because it would reduce the number of illegal border-crossers issued a notice to appear in U.S. courts, the practice derided by Republicans as “catch and release.” It also potentially offers Democrats a more palatable alternative to the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program that Biden has restarted under federal court order but is reviled by immigrant advocates.

Katie Tobin, Biden’s top immigration adviser on the National Security Council, said the administration’s goal is to move in a direction “where we are testing innovative ideas that are humane, that maintain the due process that’s required in an asylum adjudication but that get us away from a system where people wait five years for a decision.”

Such delays, she said in an interview, are “not good for our country and not good for people who are really in need of protection.”

While the operational details of the reception center model remain in flux, it would probably require asylum seekers who cross the border to remain at government sites until their cases are decided. If they did not qualify for protection in the United States, they would be deported.

Proponents of the model say it would allow migrant families to remain together in a non-carceral setting with access to recreation and educational programming, medical services, and legal counsel. The multiple federal agencies and nonprofit groups that work with asylum seekers would have a presence at the consolidated sites to streamline the process, according to others involved in the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The centers would seek to resolve humanitarian claims in weeks or months, not years, as has become the norm in a U.S. immigration court system backlogged by 1.4 million pending cases.

Tobin, who worked at the United Nations refugee agency before joining the administration, has visited reception center sites in Germany that handle large numbers of asylum seekers and reach decisions within weeks.

“We’re still in the concept development phase, but as we move into year two of this administration, there will be a real focus on truly bringing about meaningful reform to our asylum system and how we process asylum seekers at the border,” she said.

Tobin and others familiar with the proposals said Biden officials can also draw upon lessons learned from the U.S. effort to resettle more than 70,000 Afghan evacuees through Operation Allies Welcome. While the use of military bases is not likely to be an option for housing asylum seekers, the co-location of federal agencies at a single site and the nondetained status of the Afghans are similar in concept to the reception center model.

“I think you’ll see us trying to draw good practices from other countries and the experience of Operational Allies Welcome,” Tobin said.

Asylum seekers housed at reception centers would not be technically detained, but would have incentives to remain at the sites and comply fully with the adjudication process. Some versions of the program would allow migrants to come and go during the day, or rely on the electronic monitoring tools used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Alternatives to Detention programs.

The broad outlines of the reception center idea have circulated at the Department of Homeland Security for years and were discussed by members of Biden’s transition team. But the proposal has taken on new urgency in recent months as illegal crossings reached record levels and the president’s advisers — along with Democrats more broadly — have sought new border management tools that balance enforcement with adherence to U.S. asylum laws.

Biden’s top immigration advisers met at the White House in late September to discuss the reception center model, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting. The president’s advisers and many in Democratic circles are hungry for new ideas, these people said, amid a growing recognition that immigrant advocates’ demand for the immediate release of all asylum seekers would be politically untenable, as well as a magnet for illegal crossings by economic migrants who aren’t victims of persecution.

The likely cost of establishing asylum reception centers would be considerable, and it’s unclear how they would be funded. But some administration officials who support the idea believe it would appeal to moderate Republican lawmakers frustrated with the dysfunction of the U.S. asylum system.

The vast majority of the single-adult migrants who cross the border illegally are deported or quickly “expelled” under the Title 42 public health law implemented in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, DHS statistics show. Family groups present a different challenge to authorities, however, because of court limits on the amount of time children can be held in immigration detention.

About 500,000 to 600,000 of the 1.7 million border-crossers who arrived during the 2021 fiscal year were not expelled or deported by U.S. authorities, Customs and Border Protection statistics show. Many those released into the United States were families and unaccompanied minors traveling without a parent.

Mexican and Central American applicants account for the largest share of asylum decisions in U.S. courts, and they are approved at the lowest rates — less than 20 percent, the latest Justice Department figures show. But court backlogs and the slow pace of the adjudication process typically allow applicants to live and work in the United States for years, with little risk of deportation if their applications are denied.

Of the 1.7 million Central Americans who were taken into custody along the Mexican border between 2014 and 2019, only about 28 percent have been sent back to their home countries, even though just 7.6 percent qualified for asylum protection or some other form of legal residency, DHS statistics show.

The vast majority of the rest who were taken into custody during that period still have pending court claims or have remained in the United States despite being ordered to leave, according to a 2020 DHS report. Those migrants are not an enforcement priority for arrest under new guidelines issued to ICE officers by the Biden administration.

ICE data shows that the share of migrants who absconded from Alternatives to Detention programs rose to 33 percent during the 2020 fiscal year. 

The Biden administration is preparing another significant change that will have U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officers, instead of immigration judges, make initial decisions on applications in an effort to expedite the process. That proposal is expected to launch next spring and could work in concert with the reception center model.

One potential challenge to the reception center model would be U.S. court limits on the amount of time that underage migrants can be held in immigration detention, a series of provisions referred to as the Flores Settlement Agreement, based on a decades-old lawsuit. Proponents of the reception centers said Flores rules would not apply if the families were not formally detained.

Kevin Keen, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee office in Washington, said the agency has been in discussions with the Biden administration as it “engages in regular dialogue with and at the request of the U.S. government as it seeks to enhance its asylum system.”

“People fleeing conflict, violence and persecution and arriving in another country need to be quickly identified so that they can receive asylum and support,” Keen said in an email. “Those who do not qualify for protection also need to be rapidly identified and may be returned, always with dignity and due regard to human rights standards.”

Many of the European centers were established after a large influx of Syrian, Afghan and North African asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016.

Susan Fratzke, who studies international migration models at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said there is no standardized European blueprint but rather variations on a common approach to consolidating services and agencies in the same location. Switzerland, Sweden and Germany have set up centers of this type, she said.

The centers could bring “greater integrity and bring more finality,” but Fratzke cautioned that they would have to come with new investments and reforms to U.S. asylum procedures.

The European centers have drawn some criticism for being located in remote areas, and not all of the countries have found that they produce faster processing times, Fratzke said. But they are generally viewed as a success. “This is something that, depending on how it’s implemented, does have potential benefits and fewer potential harms than other options,” she said.