Nearly 7,000 Venezuelan migrants have been authorized to travel to the United States since the Biden administration recently created a program for U.S. sponsors to apply for them, and more than 490 have already arrived, Department of Homeland Security officials said Thursday.
The Biden administration said in mid-October that they would accept 24,000 Venezuelans with U.S. sponsors who can house and support them financially. Since then, officials said the number of Venezuelans apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally has plunged from an average of 1,100 a day to about 300 a day.
“Two weeks ago, DHS announced a new process for Venezuelan nationals that enhances the security of our border and provides a lawful means for eligible Venezuelans to come to the United States,” Department of Homeland Security spokesman Luis Miranda said in a statement. “The initial data shows that when there is a lawful and orderly way, people are less inclined to put lives in the hands of smugglers.”
Federal officials created the program to deter migrant adults and children from making the perilous trek through jungles and multiple countries to the U.S.-Mexico border, and to reduce pressure on officials in border cities as well as in D.C. and New York, where shelters have strained to make room for new arrivals.
But it remains unclear what will happen when the 24,000 slots fill up, a small fraction of the nearly 190,000 Venezuelans apprehended at the southern border last fiscal year, some more than once.
Venezuelans are part of a record number of 2.3 million border apprehensions last year, exacerbating the long-running partisan feud over immigration enforcement.
Republican governors in Texas, Florida and Arizona have transported thousands of migrants from the border to northern cities such as Washington and New York, where Mayor Eric Adams (D) declared an “asylum seeker state of emergency” in October after the shelter population hit record highs.
Days later, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the U.S. government would admit Venezuelans on “parole” for two years and allow them to obtain work permits and apply for asylum or another permanent legal status. They could face deportation if they lose their immigration cases, officials said.
Anyone who crosses the border illegally after Oct. 19 is disqualified from the program and will be expelled to Mexico or another country or deported, DHS officials said. Anyone who enters Mexico or Panama illegally will also be ineligible for parole.
Dozens of distraught Venezuelans recently turned back from the United States were camped out in front of the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico City this week, trying to catch flights back to the homeland they fled.
At night they sleep on the sidewalk, tucked into blankets on blue mattress pads provided by the embassy. At dawn, embassy staff shuffle them to the other side of the street to make room for other Venezuelans lining up to renew their passports.
Josue Cardozo, 28, said he left Venezuela more than a month ago and traveled through several countries to reach the U.S. border. He said he dodged smugglers and saw other migrants die on the journey through the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama.
But when he crossed into Texas, he said U.S. officials detained him, transported him to California, and then bused him and other Venezuelans to a bus station in Tijuana.
“We didn’t know where they were taking us,” said Cardozo, who speaks only Spanish. “I was staring out of the window and all of the sudden I see this sign that says, ‘Bienvenido a México,’” or “Welcome to Mexico.”
“I used up all my savings and saw hell to find freedom in the United States,” Cardozo said, adding that he dropped to his knees in the bus station’s bathroom and wept. “I just wanted to work and have a shot at a better life. But it literally felt as if Joe Biden had grabbed my heart and pulled it out of my chest.”
Now he and others are trying to scrounge up $200 for a flight home to Venezuela.
“The worst pain is feeling as if no country wants you,” Biliyoel Urdaneta, 34, said in an interview outside of the embassy.
Urdaneta said Mexican authorities in the sprawling border city of Ciudad Juárez blocked him from crossing into El Paso, Texas, in September. He had lost his phone in the jungle on the trek north, and now he is unsure how he will get to Caracas, and then home to the city of Maracaibo, nearly 500 miles west of the capital.
He said he did not have anyone in the United States who could sponsor him.
Deporting Venezuelans is difficult because the Venezuelan government often refuses to allow deportation flights into the country. President Biden acknowledged the challenge in September, saying it was “not rational” to deport anyone to authoritarian regimes such as Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.
But Urdaneta said that is effectively what is happening to him and other Venezuelans.
“Biden said he understood our problem, that Venezuela is a dictatorship people are trying to flee,” Urdaneta said. “Now he gives us this surprise. What do I tell my family? That our future is over? That there won’t be food at the table?”
Homeland Security officials said they are hopeful that the new program will focus migrants on safer, lawful pathways, and said there is the potential to increase the 24,000 cap if the system works.
Officials said they have issued more than 6,800 travel authorizations as part of the new program. Of the nearly 500 arrivals so far, more than half had been waiting for their approvals in Mexico.
The program is modeled after a similar effort for Ukrainians, who began flying into Mexico after the Russian invasion in February seeking to join friends or relatives in the United States. Since that program began, the U.S. government has received more than 160,000 requests to sponsor Ukrainian citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
About 112,000 Ukrainians have been approved and more than 77,000 have already arrived through the program, called “Uniting for Ukraine.”
Another 111,000 Ukrainians have arrived outside of the program since late March, according to the department.
Maria Sacchetti reported from Washington, D.C., and Maria Luisa Paul reported from Mexico City.