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Venezuelans stranded as US changes asylum policy

October 30, 2022

A recent policy change has the US turning Venezuelan asylum-seekers away at land borders, although officials say a limited "parole program" will help. As rights groups decry the change, Venezuelans are stuck in limbo.

Asylum-seeking migrants, mostly from Venezuela, walk out of the Rio Bravo after crossing it to turn themselves in to US Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas
Prior to the policy change, Venezuelan migrants could turn themselves in to border authorities with asylum claimsImage: Jose Luis Gonzales/REUTERS

Pedro Mora left Venezuela at age 18 and had already been living outside of the country for four years when he set off from Colombia for a journey toward a new life in the United States on September 17.

Mora and two male relatives took a ferry from Necocli to Capurgana and crossed from Colombia into Panama. They then spent seven harrowing days crossing jungle, mountains and rivers on foot through the Darien Gap, which connects Central and South America, encountering injured and dead travelers along the way. An overweight man looked like he might have died of a heart attack from exertion; another appeared to have been strangled in his tent.

They sought to join a larger group as protection against rampant robbery on the migrant route. "There were many, many people — too many," the 22-year-old said. "Mostly Venezuelans, but also Afghans, Chinese, Haitians. There were pregnant women, women with children, entire families."

People make a river crossing on the first day of their trek through the Darien Gap
People traversing the Darien Gap, such as this group of Haitians, face hazardous terrainImage: John Moore/Getty Images

Mora recalled a particularly difficult day spent climb over a tall, muddy mountain for 10 hours. The following day, a 13-hour march brought them to the El Abuelo Camp.

"When we arrived, I took off my boots because my legs were hurting," Mora said, "and only then I noticed how my legs were completely scratched up, swollen, that I had lost a nail."

After being processed a UN migration camp he described as "literally like a prison," he continued by bus through Costa Rica and Nicaragua, then traveled by boat to Oaxaca, in Mexico, and by land again to El Paso, Texas: the United States. The entire journey had taken 21 days.

Map indicating route from South America via Panama's Darien Gap to US border

Mora and his two relatives turned themselves in to the US Border Patrol with an asylum claim on October 8. "I truly believed that I was going to be able to be reunited with my family in the US," he said.

Instead, he said he spent five days in overfilled detention centers before he and 180 other Venezuelans were placed in shackles, loaded onto a plane — and, 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) later, dropped off at a bridge in Brownsville, Texas, and told to cross to the other side.

"And as we walked off the bridge, a man with a Mexican accent said, 'What are you doing here?' And we looked up and saw the Mexican flag."

Without a deportation card or any kind of paperwork, they had been ejected to Mexican territory. "They had tricked us," Mora said bitterly.

Selfie of Venezuelan citizen Pedro Mora at the US-Mexico border
Mora's triumphant selfie upon reaching the US border preceded profound disappointmentImage: Pedro Mora

Violating international law

Under US and international law, all people have the right to apply for asylum.

"And when you declare that you are seeking asylum, the US government should receive your claim and allow it to be reviewed by immigration officials to evaluate your asylum," said Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"But the government doesn't always follow the law," Mattiace said.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Trump administration pressured the CDC to issue a new policy provision restricting migration, called Title 42 — ostensibly to prevent infected people from bringing the coronavirus into the United States.

Since enacting the measure, the US government has used Title 42 to reject asylum-seekers at the border more than 2.3 million times — including, according to HRW, illegal "turnbacks" as happened to Mora and the others in Brownsville.

Border Patrol Officers on duty as migrants from Venezuela try to cross the American border in Rio Grande, Mexico, on September 14, 2022
Although anyone has the right to claim asylum, the US has used Title 42 to turn back displaced people at land bordersImage: picture alliance / AA

Mattiace called the provision, which remains in effect long after the US reopened to international travelers and most other pandemic measures have been dropped, merely a pretense to shut down legal pathways to the United States.

Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security under Joe Biden — who railed against Donald Trump's border policies in his 2020 presidential campaign — expanded Title 42 on October 12 with the announcement of a "new migration enforcement process for Venezuelans."

"Effective immediately, Venezuelans who enter the United States between ports of entry, without authorization, will be returned to Mexico," a DHS press release read.

Venezuela's displacement crisis

Venezuela has spiraled into a crisis that has deepened over the course of the past decade. Although it began under Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the situation there worsened after his successor Nicolas Maduro took over when Chavez died in 2013.

A bitter power struggle between Maduro and the opposition has resulted in a climate of violent political repression, resulting in human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings. Corruption is endemic in government agencies.

Political turmoil and mismanagement have resulted in hyperinflation and economic collapse, with food and other basic needs in short supply. The poverty rate in Venezuela is currently estimated at 96%. Starvation is a real threat for many, while the collapse of the health care system means that disease is spreading. Violent crime and murder in particular have escalated.

Shelves completely empty at pharmacy in Caracas, Venezuela
Venezuelans often find empty shelves at stores such as this pharmacy in CaracasImage: Rayner Pena/dpa/picture alliance

According to the UN Refugee Agency, "People continue to leave Venezuela to escape violence, insecurity and threats as well as lack of food, medicine and essential services." The agency estimates more than 6 million people have fled the country, creating it the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world after Syria.

When he left Venezuela in 2018, Mora said, the crisis was so acute that all the money he earned went toward food. He fled to Chile, where he worked as a parking attendant. By this September he had finally saved enough to undertake the journey north, flying to Bogota, Colombia, to set out.

Limited 'parole program'

The Biden administration change in policy on October 12 includes an "orderly way for Venezuelans to enter the United States" under a "parole program" that grants successful applicants a two-year stay. But that has some serious catches, as well.

Applicants must possess a valid passport, secure a financial sponsor within the US, fund their own travel, clear a screening — and, significantly, not have been removed from the United States within the past five years or have crossed the Panama, Mexico or US borders irregularly after October 19.

Such restrictions make this program "practically inaccessible to the vast majority of Venezuelans," Mattiace said.

Though modeled after the United for Ukraine visa offering, which set no limits on the number of displaced Ukrainians permitted to enter the US, the Venezuela program is capped at 24,000 people. Considering that HRW estimates that 107,000 Venezuelans have crossed the Darien Gap this year alone, this figure is vastly inadequate.

In addition, many Venezuelans stranded in Mexico and Central America are not eligible for the program because they were recently expelled from the United States under Title 42.

"Including this very limited humanitarian parole program seems looks like an attempt to sugarcoat this abusive expansion of Title 42," Mattiace said.

With congressional elections looming, Mattiace said, the Biden administration's retention of Title 42 "seems to be politically motivated."

Migrants at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on October 13, 2022
Mexican shelters have filled to the brink with Venezuelans turned back at the US borderImage: Elliot Spagat/AP Photo/picture alliance

One of the greatest hurdles in the parole program is the passport requirement. Of the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have taken Mora's journey, only about 1% have passports, Mattiace said.

Mora is among the tiny proportion of Venezuelans traveling with a valid passport. But even getting that while living in Chile took three years and about $550 — although officially it should cost only $80. The average monthly income in Venezuela is about $25.

"It's complicated because the institutions in charge of issuing documents are very corrupt," Mora said.

Venezuelans in limbo

The US policy change leaves Venezuelans with few options. Many who undertook the journey north are now stranded in Mexico and Central America. For those expelled from the US, the situation is especially hard.

"I feel rage and frustration, impotence," Mora said.

Currently in Mexico City, Mora will try to continue his asylum process since he managed to lodge registration in the United States before October 12. However, he said, it's clear that he will not be admitted under the parole program.

"We seek work, we don't want to be a burden on the US government," he said.

"But we need help getting there."

Migrants risk death on Darien Gap trek north

Edited by: Milan Gagnon