Nov 7, 2022 - World

Biden's new border policy throws Venezuelan migrants into limbo

Venezuelan migrants wait to be registered after crossing the Darien Gap into Panama. Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP via Getty

A recent change in the Biden administration's immigration policy has left Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers attempting to get to the U.S. in limbo.

Why it matters: More than 7.1 million people have left Venezuela since 2015 largely due to the country's dire humanitarian crisis, according to the UN. Just this year, 150,000 Venezuelans have arrived at the southern U.S. border — four times as many as in the year prior.

Driving the news: The Biden administration last month announced that Venezuelans who cross the U.S. southern border between ports of entry, without authorization, after Oct. 12 will be returned to Mexico.

  • Venezuelans who irregularly entered Mexico or Panama after Oct. 12, as well as any Venezuelan who is a dual national of any country other than Venezuela or holds refugee status of any country will not be eligible for entry into the U.S.
  • The Biden administration says the new policy is intended to create "a more orderly and safe process for people fleeing the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela." The expulsions are being made under a pandemic Trump-era policy known as Title 42.
  • The Department of Homeland Security also announced a process to allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans to enter the U.S. through its airports.

Zoom in: The U.S. decision was particularly concerning for those who were en route to the U.S. — many of whom had just crossed or were attempting to traverse the perilous Darién Gap.

  • A record 151,000 migrants and asylum seekers — the vast majority Venezuelan — crossed the Darién between January and the end of September, according to the UN refugee agency.
  • The journey involves traversing the treacherous jungle between Colombia and Panama, avoiding drug traffickers and violence.
  • It's a journey Venezuelans who have done it, including Elianny who recently spoke to Axios, say is grueling.

Elianny, 31, fled Venezuela in 2016 and traversed the Darién jungle last year. Desperate to reach the U.S., she paid people smugglers $250 to help her and her two-year-old daughter.

  • "I had already prepared myself psychologically before traveling because I knew anything could happen, but deep down I knew I had to protect my baby,” says Elianny, who asked Axios to only use her first name because she's still going through the asylum process.
  • Along the way, Elianny says she saw people being robbed and girls being raped. She says she hopes to one day forget those images.
  • The smugglers abandoned her, and Elianny admits she's not sure what might have happened if not for the men who helped carry her daughter during difficult stretches. It took four grueling days to reach Panama, she says.

After being temporarily detained and then released by Panamanian authorities, they crossed through Central America until they reached the city of Acuña, Mexico, and crossed the Río Grande River.

  • Once in Texas, she turned herself into authorities and requested refuge. Without a permit to work legally, she resorted to using false papers to get factory work, and now makes home deliveries. she tells Axios.
  • Elianny previously spent four years in Ecuador, but after the pandemic decimated that country's economy, she found it difficult to make ends meet.

The big picture: Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced that the had U.S. deported 1,768 Venezuelans to Mexico in the first week under the new policy. More Venezuelans than usual arriving at the southern border also requested refuge in Mexico rather than continuing on, he said.

Those who stay in Mexico will have limited job prospects, according to William Jensen, a former Mexican official who is also affiliated with the Mexican Council on International Affairs.

  • Mexico is now home to many more migrants than the government is willing or able to support, and only a fraction gain stable, legal employment in areas like manufacturing, Jensen says. Many migrants are forced to sell items in the street or do other irregular work.
  • Several media outlets have reported about Venezuelan migrants now sleeping on the street in Mexico, unsure of where they will end up.
  • If Mexico deports Venezuelans further south, they could be vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, violence, human trafficking or sexual exploitation, says Manolo Préstamo, an immigration expert at the Mexican Council on International Affairs who recently visited the border.

What to watch: The Biden administration hopes that people fleeing Venezuela will remain in neighboring countries rather than trying to make the journey to the U.S.

  • Colombia and Ecuador plan to grant legal status to tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants. In Ecuador, the U.S. embassy has posted on social media encouraging Venezuelans to pursue regularization.
  • José Regalado, President of the Venezuelan Civic Association of Ecuador, says some people are deciding to stay in Ecuador and apply for regularization due to Biden’s new policy.
  • Many others will likely still try to find a way north.
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