WASHINGTON—Venezuelan migrants who cross the U.S.’s southern border illegally to seek asylum will be expelled back to Mexico using a pandemic-era border policy known as Title 42, under a new migration agreement announced jointly by the U.S. and Mexico on Wednesday.
At the same time, the Biden administration also is creating a new immigration program to allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans to move to the U.S. legally, to deter them from attempting to cross into the U.S. illegally, the announcement said.
Under that new program, which will be known as “Volunteering for Venezuela,” Venezuelans across the Western Hemisphere can apply online to come to the U.S. provided they have an American financial sponsor and pass national security checks.
The pair of actions together are meant to slow what has become an increasing movement of Venezuelan migrants crossing into the U.S., where they are allowed to stay and pursue asylum claims. The U.S. doesn’t maintain relations with the Venezuelan government and, until Wednesday, Mexico refused to accept them back under its migration agreement with the U.S.
More than 150,000 Venezuelans have crossed the U.S. border illegally in the first 11 months of the government’s fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, compared with about 48,000 the entire year before, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
“These actions make clear that there is a lawful and orderly way for Venezuelans to enter the United States, and lawful entry is the only way,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
Venezuelans who qualify for the new program will be given permission to fly to the U.S., and the Department of Homeland Security aims to process their work authorization documents within a few weeks of arrival, senior department officials told reporters on a call Wednesday evening.
After Wednesday, Venezuelans who cross into the U.S., Mexico or Panama illegally will be disqualified from the humanitarian program. That restriction is meant to encourage Venezuelans to stay in place wherever they are and apply to enter the U.S. legally, rather than continuing on a treacherous journey north by foot.
Maria Antonietta Diaz, president of the Venezuelan American Alliance, said the program is the beginning of a path to address “the largest humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere.”
“A quota of 24,000 is not enough,” she said in a statement. “We will work to demonstrate to the administration the need to increase the number of beneficiaries.”
The mass displacement of 6.8 million Venezuelans from their home country—the second-largest displaced population in the world behind Ukrainians—is driven by a cratering economy that has made food and medicine prohibitively expensive.
Nationalizations, corruption, and mismanagement, followed by international sanctions, led Venezuela’s economy to shrink by 80% during authoritarian leader
nearly decade-long tenure. While the economy is slated to post modest growth this year, high crime, joblessness and inflation topping 100% are still leading young Venezuelans to flee, polls show.
Most Venezuelan refugees have resettled in nearby South American countries including Colombia and Peru, but some have more recently headed for the U.S. after the Covid-19 pandemic caused economies in those countries to falter.
The new program will resemble a similar one launched in April for Ukrainian refugees, called Uniting for Ukraine, which calls on U.S. citizens to sponsor Ukrainians, who are allowed to then move to the U.S. for two years on temporary humanitarian grounds and receive work authorization.
In the two months before the administration introduced Uniting for Ukraine, more than 20,000 Ukrainians attempted to reach the U.S.—where many had family or friends willing to host them—by approaching a legal border crossing near the northern Mexican city of Tijuana. Border officials processed them under an expedited operation designed only for Ukrainians. Once the program officially launched, the Biden administration shut down expedited processing and Ukrainians all but stopped attempting the Mexico route.
Biden administration officials hope the new Venezuelan program will have a similar effect, senior DHS officials said. But the Venezuela program faces possible challenges not posed by the relocation of Ukrainians.
Some of the Venezuelans who have arrived in the U.S. via the southern border have informed border authorities they have no close family or friends in the U.S. to house them, a break from migration patterns of the past that has resulted in thousands of Venezuelan migrants entering homeless shelters in places like New York City.
Ordinary Americans with no personal connection to Ukraine stepped up in large numbers to sponsor Ukrainians, an outpouring of support that may not materialize for a different population.
The new program is also limited in scope and is unlikely to meet the demand by Venezuelans who want to move to the U.S. to find work and rebuild their lives. That could lead to more Venezuelans attempting to cross the southern border repeatedly in order to evade detection by authorities, as attempted by other populations of migrants subject to Title 42 that allows Border Patrol agents to quickly turn migrants away.
—Kejal Vyas contributed to this story.
Write to Michelle Hackman at [email protected]
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