US and Mexico agree on plans for Venezuelan migrants

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced measures aimed at reducing the number of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the southern border, a record influx that has fueled partisan divisions over US immigration policy.

Biden officials announced the plans after reaching an agreement with Mexico that will allow US authorities to send some Venezuelan migrants back across the border, while others expand the ability to seek legal entry through an application process abroad .

The arrangement is modeled after a Biden administration program that over the past six months has allowed nearly 70,000 Ukrainians to enter the United States on a legal status known as humanitarian parole. Applicants must have an individual or organization willing to support them financially and then wait for approval to fly to the United States rather than arriving at the southern border.

In an effort to discourage Venezuelans from going straight to the border, Mexico will agree to accept returns of Venezuelan migrants under Title 42, a pandemic measure said to be designed to protect public health.

“Effective immediately, Venezuelans entering the United States without authorization between ports of entry will be returned to Mexico,” DHS said in a statement. “At the same time, the United States and Mexico are stepping up coordinated enforcement efforts to target and bring people smuggling organizations to justice.”

Migrants entering Panama or Mexico illegally are not eligible for the US humanitarian program, US officials said. Applicants must pass health screenings and security clearances, but those who are approved through the online process have a fast track to U.S. work permits.

DHS officials said the measures would “help relieve pressure” on the cities and states that have taken in the migrants. With a record number of Venezuelan migrants illegally entering the United States via the southern border in recent months, government officials have been scrambling to avert a humanitarian and logistical emergency.

The Republican governors of Arizona and Texas have sent thousands of frontier workers – mostly Venezuelans – to northern US cities in recent months.

New York Mayor Eric Adams said his city’s emergency shelter system was overwhelmed by the influx, and declared a crisis and a state of emergency that is straining finances.

US officials said they would allow 24,000 Venezuelans to reach the United States under the terms of the deal. But that number is dwarfed by the nearly 160,000 taken into US custody along the southern border last year, casting doubt on the program’s ability to redirect Venezuelans to formal channels.

Authorities said they would allow Venezuelans already in Mexico to apply to enter the United States under the humanitarian program. But newcomers to the country are being detained by Mexican immigration authorities and may be deported, officials said.

The deportation of Venezuelans from the United States and Mexico was difficult because the Venezuelan government has frequently refused deportation flights into the country. Mexico has reluctantly accepted US claims on Title 42 since the policy was implemented in March 2020. Previously, however, it had not accepted Venezuelans mainly because of the challenges of deportation.

Mexican officials say the program will only work if the United States agrees to accept a significant number of Venezuelans under the visa program so migrants believe they have a viable alternative to transiting Central America.

“We will be monitoring the program to make sure the numbers are sufficient,” said a Mexican official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the agreement.

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced an increase in work visa allotment, adding 65,000 H2-B visas for temporary nonfarm workers. According to the ministry, 20,000 of these visas will be reserved for people from Central America and Haiti.

Government officials familiar with the plan said it was contingent on getting Mexico to agree to take back more migrants who were being expelled by US authorities using Title 42.

Mexico has limited the number of migrants it accepts, citing its capacity constraints, and it has allowed the United States to return relatively few Venezuelans.

According to the latest available data from Customs and Border Protection, around 1,000 Venezuelans have crossed the U.S. southern border every day for the past few weeks.

An official familiar with the program, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss it, expressed skepticism that the plan would be successful if Mexico faced the return of just a few hundred migrants a day at the border agree.

US authorities have virtually no ability to send Venezuelans back to their homeland on deportation flights because the United States does not recognize Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro as the country’s legitimate president.

Venezuelans who are not “deported” to Mexico under Title 42 would still be allowed to enter the United States. If the new legal program causes a backlog, some applicants may be unwilling to wait and attempt to enter illegally.

According to the latest UN estimates, almost 7 million Venezuelans have left their homeland since 2013. Many have settled in Colombia, Peru, and other South American countries, but others have chosen to travel north to the United States in search of better security and economic opportunity.

Venezuelan migrants are a new border challenge for Biden

The Biden administration attempted to end Trump-era Title 42 health policy but was blocked in federal court in May. Critics said the deal with Mexico was an indication of the government’s reliance on Title 42.

“The outlines of the Humanitarian Parole Program for Venezuelans were not presented to us,” said Thomas Cartwright, an immigrant advocate at the group Witness at the Border, “but we are extremely disturbed by the apparent acceptance, codification, and expansion of the program’s use of Title 42 , an irrelevant health regulation, as a cornerstone of border politics, one that wipes out the legal right to asylum.”

Sieff reported from Mexico City.

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