“The news hit me like a bucket of cold water,” said Alejaidys Morey, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who plans to start traveling to the United States by this week.
The US announced on Wednesday that it was expanding Title 42, the pandemic-era provision that allows immigration officials to deport illegal migrants to Mexico on public health grounds, and introduced a new program to allow some Venezuelan migrants to apply to come to US ports of entry on a 24,000-person airlift.
Both plans are designed to deter Venezuelans like Morey from attempting to illegally and dangerously cross the U.S.-Mexico border overland.
But many migrants already on their way tell CNN that the Biden administration’s decision leaves them in an agonizing situation after giving up everything to begin the journey north.
They also note that the new airport access program favors wealthy and well-connected Venezuelans, in other words, who can fly north in the comfort of a plane.
Venezuela’s migration crisis is more acute than ever. More than seven million Venezuelans are now living abroad, fleeing the humanitarian crisis in their country, according to new figures released by the United Nations this month.
Most live in other South American countries – there are more than two million people in Colombia alone – but in recent months, as the Covid-19 pandemic and living conditions have worsened, more and more of them have started moving north through Central America and Mexico to the United States. global food crisis.
As a result, the number of Venezuelans caught at the southern border of the United States is increasing. According to the Department of Homeland Security, up to 180,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border in the past year.
Panama and Mexico form a geographic gateway for overland travelers from South America. Under the new US immigration provision, any northbound migrant who entered Panama or Mexico illegally would be excluded from the program.
That would be the trip Morey, her husband Rodolfo and their three children had planned. They aimed to travel first to Necoclí, Colombia, and then to Panama through a 100-kilometer jungle road through an impassable area called the Darien Gap.
Despite countless dangers, 150,000 migrants have crossed on foot so far this year, according to Panamanian authorities.
Morey, who is currently in Colombia, says it is impossible to return to Venezuela. In 2018, his family sold their house in Santa Teresa del Tuy, a poor town 30 kilometers southeast of Caracas, for US$1,500 to pay for their trip to Colombia.
Now he feels that he has been put in a disgusting position. Like many, he can’t afford a transcontinental flight—much less one for his entire family.
“I have nowhere to go under such conditions… I’m afraid: what can I do?” Morey told CNN.
His situation is now the norm for most migrants traveling north.
“We’ve had to overcome so much pain, so many obstacles, now we’re stuck. We are in Necoclí and we have nowhere to go…,” a Venezuelan migrant, who asked to be identified only as Jose, told CNN.
Up to 10,000 migrants are waiting in the city to cross the Gulf to the Darien Gate, according to local authorities, but some are now reconsidering their next steps.
“I’m in pain, I don’t know what to do now,” said Ender Dairen, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who plans to join a group traveling north from Ecuador. But his plans changed after talking to other migrants online.
“A couple of friends are considering settling down somewhere between Costa Rica and Nicaragua,” he told CNN. “Everybody you talk to says the same thing: the whole route has collapsed; we can no longer travel.’
In a call to reporters Thursday, senior Homeland Security official Blas Núñez-Neto said the goal is to reduce the number of migrants approaching the U.S. southern border illegally while creating a legal pathway for those who qualify.
But the plan has drawn rare criticism from members of the Venezuelan opposition, which is generally aligned with Washington in its fight against Venezuelan authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro.
Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate and one of the few anti-Maduro leaders still living in Caracas, said: “The US government has announced a brutal migration policy that has made the situation of thousands of Venezuelans even more painful.”
Carlos Vecchio, the official representative of the Venezuelan opposition in Washington, also said on his Twitter account that this plan is “not sufficient for the scale of the Venezuelan migration crisis”.
“We recognize @POTUS’ efforts to seek an alternative to the migration crisis through humanitarian parole for orderly and safe migration for Venezuelans,” he said.
“However, the announced 24,000 visas are not enough for the scale of the problem. This issue needs to be reconsidered.”
The Venezuelan government has not commented on the new US policy.
But humanitarian organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have echoed others’ criticism that the 24,000 legal permits are insufficient and insist that others should not be allowed to be deported to Mexico under Title 42.
“We are shocked by the Biden administration’s decision to begin deporting Venezuelans under Title 42, a cruel and inhumane policy that has no basis in protecting public health,” said Avril Benoit, MSF’s executive director, in a statement.
“While we welcome the introduction of a special humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans, providing safe passage to the United States should be the norm, not the exception.”
Human rights activists claim this asylum seekers must have a chance to present their claim in the United States before being returned.
Still, some migrants say they see a glimmer of hope in the Biden administration’s new stance.
Boxing instructor Oscar Chacin, 44, who spent weeks considering the idea of traveling through Central America to the United States, told CNN that he now sees a legal way to migrate.
“It’s actually better for me. It will make things worse for a lot of people, but it’s good for me,” he said. “I have relatives in the US, some friends and some former boxing students, some of whom will be able to sponsor me and my family.”
Her son Oscar Alexander is already in Mexico and entered before the new US immigration rules were announced.
“I will stay there now. He is already looking for a job and we will submit the documents as soon as we find the sponsor,” Chasin said.
“Then we will wait for the documentation. Maybe one, maybe two years, but we will achieve it, I’m sure!”
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