Human rights advocates slammed the Biden administration’s new initiative aimed at reducing migration from Venezuela to the southwest border, claiming the program hurts more vulnerable migrants and ignores U.S. asylum obligations.
Under the initiative, part of a bilateral deal with the Mexican government announced Wednesday evening, Mexico agreed to accept Venezuelan migrants sent back from the United States. That will allow border agents to rapidly expel those migrants without considering their claims for asylum.
At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security also announced a program that would allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans who can find U.S. financial sponsors to fly into the U.S. under a temporary humanitarian status known as parole.
The program is meant to address the rising numbers of Venezuelan migrants traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border, amid economic instability and human rights abuses in the South American nation. And it comes during a midterm campaign in which immigration and border security have been key issues in some congressional races.
But advocates stress that the parole program is too limited in scope to meaningfully address the humanitarian crisis that has spurred the high levels of migration from Venezuela — particularly the thousands of Venezuelan migrants who will now be denied access to asylum at the border.
“What strikes me about it is that it’s kind of an enforcement policy to stop Venezuelan migration, and then secondarily there’s a small access to protection,” said Yael Schacher, director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International.
According to DHS, more than a quarter of Venezuela’s population has fled the country. In fiscal 2022, which ended Sept. 30, an average of more than 15,000 Venezuelan migrants were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border each month, compared with 127 encounters monthly, on average, from fiscal years 2014 to 2019.
Border agents logged 33,000 encounters with Venezuelan migrants in September alone, according to DHS.
But the Mexican government has generally refused to accept returned Venezuelan migrants through an expulsion policy known as Title 42, a public health order allowing migrants to be rapidly expelled without the chance to claim asylum. As a result, border agents have largely been releasing Venezuelan migrants into the United States to pursue their asylum claims.
Many of these migrants are fleeing political persecution at the hands of Venezuela’s authoritarian regime, and the majority of those who make it to immigration court ultimately do qualify for asylum, according to data published by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University research center.
By expanding border expulsions to Venezuelans, the latest enforcement action will significantly curb those migrants’ ability to seek asylum, a legal right, and force thousands of Venezuelan migrants back to Mexico instead.
It also aims to disincentivize Venezuelan migrants from making the journey to the border. The parole program, already limited in numbers, will exclude any migrants who have, after the date the initiative was announced, crossed either the U.S. or Mexican border without authorization or have been deported from the U.S. in the past five years. Migrants must also have a financial sponsor in the United States to qualify for parole.
Though apparently inspired by a similar private sponsorship initiative for Ukrainians fleeing the country after Russia’s invasion, known as Uniting for Ukraine, that parole program has allowed thousands more Ukrainians to enter the U.S. and does not contain eligibility criteria related to prior immigration offenses.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a news release that the department’s 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.”
After the initiative was announced, advocates promptly raised concerns about how the program would be implemented and warned that it would prioritize Venezuelans with more financial means and ties to the United States.
Schacher, who said she traveled to Guatemala earlier this month, noted that there are thousands of Venezuelan migrants already in transit to the U.S.-Mexico border who may be unlikely to hear about the new initiative before arriving at the U.S. border — and therefore disqualifying themselves from the parole program.
She also noted that some Venezuelans do not have valid passports, hindering their ability to fly to the United States to participate in the parole program, even if they could afford the tickets.
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said in a news release that, in her staff’s experience, “very few Venezuelans” coming to the U.S. seeking protection would be able to secure a financial sponsor.
Naomi Steinberg, vice president of U.S. policy and advocacy at HIAS, a refugee assistance nonprofit, said in a news release that the effort “appears to be a half-measure that would help only a small subset of Venezuelans with sponsors in the U.S.”
Jorge Loweree, managing director of programs for the American Immigration Council, called the parole program “a welcome change” but similarly warned that it is insufficient given the asylum restrictions paired with it.
“Unfortunately, the administration’s plan to expand Title 42 expulsions to include Venezuelans will affect a far greater number of people, preventing them from exercising their legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.,” Loweree said in a news release.
With midterm elections approaching, some immigrant advocates saw the announcement as an effort to combat Republican candidates’ claims that the Biden administration has failed to secure the border.
President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees,” and earlier this year he attempted to rescind the border expulsion directive, although his administration was thwarted in court.
Melina Roche, campaign manager for Welcome With Dignity, part of the Women’s Refugee Commission, said it “does feel like there is some backtracking happening ahead of the election.”
“It just feels like he is playing a political game, and rather than standing with the platform that got him elected, his administration is folding to some political pressure,” Roche said.