Venezuelans who left everything behind are stuck south of US border
By David Shortell and Julie Turkewitz
In Mexico, they are crowded along the United States border, filling makeshift camps and marching in the dust below an international bridge, holding signs that read “S.O.S. HELP.”
In Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua they are sleeping on the streets, begging for food and agonizing over their fate. Some have presented themselves to local authorities, asking for safe passage back home. Others have vowed to press on to the United States.
An abrupt shift in the Biden administration’s immigration policy this month has, almost overnight, left tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants — from the southern tip of Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border — stranded in a bureaucratic limbo.
The country many had abandoned, Venezuela, has fallen into authoritarian rule and economic ruin, setting off the biggest migration crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Since 2015, about 1 in 4 Venezuelans have left home.
The country they are trying to reach, the United States, closed the door to most of them Oct. 12, imposing a rule that forced many back into Mexico, a sweeping response to an increasingly complex humanitarian problem that has sent a record number of people to the border this year.
“I want to cry, I want to scream,” said Darrins Arrechedra, 31, of Venezuela, who said he had traversed 10 countries to get to the United States and had arrived at the border one day after the Biden administration stopped admitting Venezuelans.
Arrechedra, who had tried to make a living in Chile before embarking on his journey, stood behind a migrant aid office in Ciudad Juárez, with a view of the El Paso skyline across the Rio Grande in Texas.
Friends in the United States had promised him work, he said, and he had sold his possessions and exhausted his savings to make it this far. “I really don’t have a plan right now,” he said.
In recent months, waves of Venezuelans have left South America as word had spread that the United States had no easy way to keep most of them out and would allow them to enter the country and seek asylum.
Nearly all have passed through the Darién Gap, a brutal stretch of jungle connecting South and Central America that has become the scene of harrowing struggle as migrants confront dehydration, hunger and even death.
The surge helped fuel an intense debate in the United States over immigration, with Republican governors sending migrants to Democratic enclaves in the north by plane and buses, leading New York City to erect a tent encampment and declare a state of emergency to cope with the influx.
Under growing political pressure, the Biden administration on Oct. 12 announced the expansion of its use of a Donald Trump-era public health rule, allowing it to turn back Venezuelans arriving at the border.
The goal, according to an explanation of the policy published in the Federal Register, was to “enhance the security” at the border “by reducing irregular migration of Venezuelan nationals.”
Mexico agreed to take them under an agreement that included an increased number of United States visas for migrants from Mexico, Central America and Haiti.
The move was immediately criticized by many immigrant rights groups, who said it represented the expansion of a policy that illegally stripped people of a right to claim asylum and an inhumane response to such a devastating crisis.
In announcing that it would block most Venezuelans from entry, the United States also created a humanitarian program allowing 24,000 of them into the country if they applied from afar.
The expulsions of Venezuelans are expected to far outnumber that total, and more than 50,000 migrants poured through the Darién in the first three weeks of October, according to Panamanian officials.
“This policy fails to recognize that the Venezuelan displacement is on the same level as any war-torn nation,” said Maria Corina Vegas, a leader at ABIC Action, a U.S. advocacy group that pushes for immigration reform that benefits businesses. “It neither addresses our broken immigration system nor the labor shortage impacting our businesses and economy.”
But the Biden administration said it was creating a safer entry path for some Venezuelan migrants.
“Those who follow the lawful process will have the opportunity to travel safely to the United States and become eligible to work here,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said.
During the first 10 days of the policy, nearly 5,100 Venezuelans were sent back to Mexico, according to the United Nations.
But the policy seems to have been conceived with no clear plan for Venezuelans expelled to Mexico.
Many have sold their homes and belongings to make the journey and spent the last of their savings to make it to the border.
On Friday, the Mexican government held an emergency meeting with aid organizations to discuss next steps.
Some migration groups praised the creation of a legal pathway, even if narrow. Four Venezuelans recently arrived in the country under the new process.
But critics say it will disqualify poorer Venezuelans, many of whom lack the required paperwork and know no one in the United States. The program also disqualifies anyone who entered Panama or Mexico after last Wednesday, which means many of those who were moving toward the U.S. border.
“It’s devastating to know that this whole journey was for nothing,” said Margaret Diaz, 28, who arrived at the U.S. border two days after the expulsion policy was announced.
Diaz said her husband and their two young daughters sold “what little we had” and borrowed money before leaving their home in Chile last month.
When Diaz and her family presented themselves to U.S. authorities on Oct. 14, they were taken to a detention facility. She recalled thinking, “if they receive us, it’s because we are already winners.”
Several days later, however, they were loaded onto a bus crowded with other Venezuelans and dropped in Ciudad Juárez.
She recalled looking over at her husband, who was in tears.
To get to the United States, Jonnaleth Hidalgo, 22, had trekked with her young daughter and husband through the Darién Gap, which she described as “hell on earth.”
They nearly drowned along the way.
Last week, in Ciudad Juárez, as a strong sun began to turn a chilly morning warm, she was one of about 60 Venezuelans who marched to a section of border directly across the river from a U.S. immigration post.
As officials watched, the group unfurled banners calling for help.
Wearing a white T-shirt, she described the protest as a last-ditch attempt “to show those on the other side that we have human rights.”