By WILLIAM MELHADO, The Texas Tribune
AUSTIN, Texas — The Biden administration plans to turn most Venezuelan migrants crossing the southern border back to Mexico, which was previously not allowed, the Department of Homeland Security announced Wednesday.
The border policy also creates a pathway to bring as many as 24,000 “qualified” Venezuelans into the country. The plan includes a joint effort by the United States and Mexico to crack down on human smuggling operations by establishing new migration checkpoints and additional resources to target trafficking operations.
The new policy comes as the number of migrants crossing into the U.S. has surged in recent years. It also comes ahead of a midterm election in which immigration is frequently a top issue among likely Texas voters.
“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,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in the announcement.
He added that Venezuelans who attempt to cross the border without authorization will not only be returned to Mexico but also ineligible to apply for entry into the country in the future.
Due to social unrest and political turmoil, Venezuelans have been fleeing their home country in record numbers. In recent years, seven million Venezuelans have fled, making it the largest displacement in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest in the world after the Syrian exodus.
Many of the Venezuelans making the 3,000-mile trek from South America to the U.S.-Mexico border face extreme environmental dangers and violence along the way.
“Almost four times as many Venezuelans as last year attempted to cross our southern border, placing their lives in the hands of ruthless smuggling organizations,” the DHS announcement said. “The actions the United States and Mexico are announcing today are intended to address the most acute irregular migration and help ease pressure on the cities and states receiving these individuals.”
Federal immigration agents have recorded 2.1 million encounters at the Southwest border —a record number— in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2022, which ended September 30. That’s a 24 percent increase from the entire previous fiscal year. According to federal government statistics, immigration agents encountered nearly 154,000 Venezuelans along the U.S.-Mexico border in the first 11 months of that fiscal year—a 216 percent increase from the entire previous fiscal year. The majority of encounters with Venezuelans have occurred in the El Paso and Del Rio areas.
To be “qualified,” Venezuelans seeking entry into the United States will require someone agreeing to provide financial support and will need to pass background checks.
In March 2020, the Trump administration invoked an emergency health order known as Title 42, which immigration agents have used to immediately send back to Mexico many people trying to cross the border, including asylum-seekers, without having to file charges and wait on the formal deportation process.
But prior to Biden’s announcement on Wednesday, Venezuelans couldn’t be sent across the border under Title 42 because they’re on the list of nationalities Mexico wouldn’t accept. But Wednesday’s announcement called the new policies a joint venture between the U.S. and Mexico. Venezuelan migrants can’t be deported back to their country because the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Venezuela in 2019. Instead, they have been released to local shelters.
Last week, immigration agents released 6,800 migrants, many of them Venezuelans, into El Paso, a 300 percent weekly increase from nearly two months ago, according to El Paso’s “migrant crisis” online dashboard.
Unable to support the influx of migrants, El Paso has spent upwards of $2 million on chartered buses to New York City and Chicago, transporting thousands of migrants out of the city. El Paso has transported more than 12,000 migrants, mostly to New York, since late August, according to the dashboard.
Prior to El Paso’s busing of migrants, Gov. Greg Abbott used taxpayer dollars to transport thousands of migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago. His public announcements of the buses drew condemnation from Democratic leaders across the country, who accused the Texas governor of using human beings as political pawns.
Abbott’s busing strategy seemed to inspire copycats from other GOP governors. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis chartered two private planes from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island known as a tourist destination. Many of the migrants were misled prior to boarding the flights, which has prompted multiple lawsuits against the Florida governor and an investigation by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.
Abbott’s busing strategy remains popular with a slim majority of Texas voters. According to an August poll from the University of Texas at Austin, 52 percent of voters supported the governor’s plan. Immigration and border security ranked as the top concern of voters ahead of the 2022 elections, with 26 percent of Texans voters placing it as their primary issue ahead of the state’s economy.
Venezuelans have been fleeing their home country amid social unrest and political turmoil. The South American country was once one of the richest in Latin America. The United States then imposed economic sanctions on the Venezuelan government in an attempt to force President Nicolás Maduro out of power because American federal officials accused him of election fraud. Those sanctions caused the oil industry, which was the country’s economic engine, to collapse.
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