US and Mexico reach agreement on plans for Venezuelan migrants

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

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 expanding opportunities for others to seek legal entry through an application process abroad.

The arrangement is modeled after a Biden administration program that has allowed nearly 70,000 Ukrainians to enter the United States over the past six months with a legal status known as humanitarian parole. Applicants must have a person or organization willing to sponsor them financially, then await authorization to fly to the United States, rather than arriving at the southern border.

Mexico, in an effort to discourage Venezuelans from heading directly to the border, will agree to accept the return of Venezuelan migrants under Title 42, a pandemic measure ostensibly designed to protect public health.

“Effective immediately, Venezuelans who enter the United States between ports of entry, without authorization, will be returned to Mexico,” DHS said in a statement. “At the same time, the United States and Mexico are reinforcing their coordinated enforcement operations to target human smuggling organizations and bring them to justice.”

Migrants who enter Panama or Mexico illegally will be ineligible for the US humanitarian program, US officials said. Applicants must clear health screenings and security vetting, but those approved through the online process will have a fast-track to US work authorization.

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DHS officials said the measures will “help ease pressure on the cities and states” that have been receiving the migrants. With a record number of Venezuelan migrants illegally entering the United States across the southern border in recent months, administration officials have been scrambling to head off a humanitarian and logistical emergency.

The Republican governors of Arizona and Texas have sent thousands of border-crossers — mostly Venezuelans — to northern US cities in recent months.

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

US officials said they will allow 24,000 Venezuelans to reach the United States under the terms of the agreement. But that number is dwarfed by the nearly 160,000 who have been taken into US custody along the southern border over the past year, raising doubts about the program’s capacity to redirect Venezuelans to formal channels.

Authorities said they will allow Venezuelans who are already in Mexico to apply for entry into the United States under the humanitarian program. But new arrivals to the country will be detained by Mexican immigration authorities and possibly deported, officials said.

Deporting Venezuelans from the United States and Mexico has been difficult because the Venezuelan government has frequently refused to allow deportation flights into the country. Mexico has reluctantly accepted US demands on Title 42 since the policy was implemented in March 2020. But it previously would not accept Venezuelans largely because of the deportation challenges.

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

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

The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced an increase in the allotment of work visas, adding 65,000 H2-B visas for temporary nonagricultural workers. Of those, 20,000 visas will be reserved for people from Central America and Haiti, according to the department.

Administration officials familiar with the plan said it has been contingent on getting Mexico to agree to take back more migrants expelled by US authorities using Title 42.

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

Roughly 1,000 Venezuelans have been crossing the US southern border each day in recent weeks, according to the latest available data from Customs and Border Protection.

One official familiar with the program, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss it, expressed skepticism that the plan would be successful if Mexico agrees to the return of only a few hundred migrants per day at the border.

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

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Venezuelans who aren’t “expelled” to Mexico under Title 42 would continue to be allowed to enter the United States. If the new legal program generates backlogs, some applicants may not be willing to wait and attempt to enter illegally.

Nearly 7 million Venezuelans have left their homeland since 2013, according to the latest UN estimates. Many settled in Colombia, Peru and other South American nations, but others have opted to make the journey north to the United States in search of better security and economic opportunities.

Venezuelan migrants are a new border challenge for Biden

The Biden administration attempted to end the Trump-era Title 42 public health policy but failed blocked in federal court in May. Critics said the agreement with Mexico appeared to be an indication of the administration’s dependency on Title 42.

“The contours of the Humanitarian Parole Program for Venezuelans have not been presented to us,” said Thomas Cartwright, an immigrant advocate with the group Witness at the Border, “but we are extremely disturbed by the apparent acceptance, codification, and expansion of the use of Title 42, an irrelevant health order, as a cornerstone of border policy, one that expunges the legal right to asylum.”

Sieff reported from Mexico City.

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