Record numbers of Venezuelan migrants have been crossing into the United States in recent months, posing a new border challenge for the Biden administration and raising concerns that more of the nearly 6 million people displaced from the South American nation could be heading north.
The U.S. government does not recognize Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro as the country’s legitimate president, limiting the ability of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to send migrants back.
As a result, nearly all of the Venezuelans crossing the Mexican border are being released into the United States. ICE carried out just 150 deportations to Venezuela between October 2020 and August 2021, a period when nearly 40,000 Venezuelans crossed the U.S. border illegally, according to agency statistics.
Those figures contrast with the treatment of Haitian migrants, whom the Biden administration has expelled en masse since September using the Title 42 emergency public health law. Last month fewer than 1 percent of Venezuelans were expelled under Title 42, while 48 percent of Haitians were returned.
“This is a hard one for the administration,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “They don’t want to send people back to Venezuela. At same time, if Venezuelan nationals are allowed in, it creates incentives for others to try.”
The new migration pattern is different from previous waves of Venezuelan arrivals because it is occurring along the U.S. southern border and includes a large share of migrants who left their country years ago. These “secondary displacements” span a much wider social and economic range than the wealthier and middle-class Venezuelans who have arrived over the past two decades, often resettling in South Florida after flying into the United States, many with visas.
The new Venezuelan influx is also a test for Republican politicians who have historically welcomed refugees from socialist and communist states but whose immigration views hardened under President Donald Trump. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, whose proposals to cut immigration have been widely embraced in the GOP, argues Venezuelans should seek refuge closer to home or the first country where they arrive.
“There’s no excuse for people from Venezuela to fly to Mexico and claim asylum in the United States,” Krikorian said. “Republicans will have knee-jerk sympathy for people fleeing socialist regimes, but they’re also not going to want to release huge numbers of people into United States outside the bounds of the immigration system — and that might move the discussion on asylum forward, so we can engage in a fundamental reassessment of how the system works.”
Venezuelans do not require a tourist visa to visit Mexico, so many have been flying into Mexican border cities and walking across the border to Del Rio, Tex., or Yuma, Ariz. Both locations have a reputation as easier crossing points and with fewer kidnappings by criminal organizations, and those two Border Patrol sectors accounted for more than 95 percent of Venezuelan arrivals last month.
U.S. officials have asked Mexico to tighten entry requirements for Venezuelans, but Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has cultivated friendlier ties to the Maduro government. Airlines operating between Caracas, Venezuela, and Cancún, Mexico, are reporting high numbers of passengers failing to check in for their return flights.
U.S. officials are also urging Colombia, Ecuador and other countries in the region to take back Venezuelans who were settled in those countries before making the journey to the United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken led a U.S. delegation to a summit last month in Colombia to promote regional coordination on migration management.
Eduardo Maia Silva, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said U.S. officials are working to “ensure safe, orderly, and humane immigration processes.”
“DHS, in coordination with the Department of State, has regular discussions with partner countries in the Hemisphere on migration related matters and continues to engage with foreign governments to improve cooperation with countries that systematically refuse or delay the repatriation of their nationals,” Maia Silva said in a statement.
Much of those efforts have focused on urging Mexico to impose new visa requirements and police its airports for migrants using the country’s airports as a springboard. Tighter restrictions on Ecuadoran travelers to Mexico led to a sharp drop-off in migrants encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, from 17,611 in August to 744 last month, CBP data show.
During the Trump administration, Venezuelans were returned across the border under the “Remain in Mexico” program that required asylum seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims were processed. President Biden ended the program after taking office, but a federal court has ordered his administration to restore it.
U.S. officials say they are working out final details with Mexican authorities in preparation for a possible restart in the coming weeks, but it’s unclear whether Mexico would take back Venezuelan asylum seekers under a new version of the program.
Venezuela has become one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere under Maduro, despite possessing the world’s largest proven oil reserves. The country’s feeble public health system was crippled by the pandemic, and parts of the Venezuelan countryside are ruled by drug traffickers and insurgent groups.
The Biden administration in March designated Venezuelans for temporary protected status (TPS), shielding eligible applicants from deportation by citing “extraordinary and temporary conditions in Venezuela that prevent nationals from returning safely, including a complex humanitarian crisis marked by widespread hunger and malnutrition, a growing influence and presence of non-state armed groups, repression, and a crumbling infrastructure.”
U.S. officials estimate 323,000 Venezuelans living in the United States without legal status are eligible to apply for protected status, more than any other nation designated for TPS.
Only Venezuelans present in the United States before March 8, 2021, were eligible for TPS status, but many of the migrants who have arrived in recent months have told authorities they believed they would also receive the protections, according to Wilfredo Allen, an immigration attorney in Miami whose office has been busy with Venezuelan clients.
They include single adults traveling alone as well as family groups. Venezuelans applying for asylum in Miami tend to fare well in the city’s immigration courts, Allen said, receiving approval at a much higher rate than other nationalities.
“Right now probably the biggest percentage of people winning asylum are Venezuelan,” Allen said. Those whose claims are rejected often try to gain residency through other means, including family sponsorship or employment, Allen said, as well as marriages of convenience. Immigration authorities are cracking down, he said.
During the 2021 fiscal year that ended in September, 48,678 Venezuelans were taken into CBP custody after crossing the Mexico border, up from 2,787 during the previous fiscal year, CBP statistics show. Venezuela was the fourth-largest source of migrants stopped by CBP last month, after Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
United Nations officials say there are some Venezuelans among the many destitute migrants journeying northward by land through the dangerous Darien Gap region of Panama, a route used heavily by Haitian migrants. Others are flying into Nicaragua, whose socialist president, Daniel Ortega, is a Maduro ally.
“Americans assume it’s all about people getting to the U.S. border, but most migrants in the Western Hemisphere have moved to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Selee. “If that group is starting to move north, this is going to be a much bigger issue than it has been in the past.”