United States immigration officials are set to begin accepting applications for a new parole programme for Venezuelan asylum seekers, in a plan that will see most Venezuelans trying to enter the US through its southern border expelled back to Mexico.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Tuesday published a Federal Register notice (PDF) announcing the official start of the programme, which was announced last week, that will allow 24,000 Venezuelans to come into the US by air.
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The plan, which is aimed at addressing the growing number of Venezuelans who have been arriving at the US-Mexico border seeking asylum, also includes the expansion of a border expulsion policy known as Title 42.
Up until now, the pandemic-era rule – which allows US authorities to quickly send most migrants back to Mexico without a chance to file a petition – had largely been applied to asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Due to strained relations with the Venezuelan government, the US had been unable to expel the country’s citizens. It has instead been allowing them to file for asylum and enter the US to pursue their cases.
But now, under the new agreement, Mexico has agreed to take in Venezuelans. Hundreds have already been expelled to Mexico, according to local media reports.
The development comes as the administration of US President Joe Biden has struggled to address the record-high numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at its southern border with Mexico.
With three weeks until critical midterm elections that will determine control of the US Congress, Biden’s Republican rivals have seized on the issue and accused his administration of mishandling the situation at the border.
US and international rights groups have slammed the new border policy for Venezuelans.
“While we welcome steps to provide safe processing for some Venezuelans, the creation of safe pathways should never be wielded to deny other people seeking protection access to asylum,” dozens of human rights organisations wrote in a joint letter last week addressed to DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
“We are also troubled that the announcement refers to attempted entry at the southern border by Venezuelans as ‘illegal.’ Seeking asylum is legal under both US and international law,” the letter reads.
Migration advocates also argued that the 24,000 cap on Venezuelans who will be allowed into the US is a negligible number that does not address the pressure at the border.
More than 155,000 Venezuelans have been stopped at the US-Mexico border as of the end of August, DHS records show, in a stark uptick from last year when more than 50,000 were apprehended. In August alone, more than 25,000 Venezuelans crossed the border from Mexico, according to the department.
“For the time being it seems like this is a much larger stick than a carrot strategy,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
“Twenty-four thousand Venezuelans is a drop in the bucket in the larger scheme of the Venezuelan refugee crisis,” Reichlin-Melnick told Al Jazeera.
According to the DHS document, more than 3,000 people, most of them Venezuelan nationals, are crossing the Darien Gap into Panama every day on their way north.
Personally, it's hard not to see this as a massive stick and a tiny carrot. DHS says 33,000 Venezuelans entered in September and that 3,000 people a day ("mostly Venezuelans") are crossing the Darien Gap into Panama on their way north.
So a cap of 24,000 is, to be blunt, crumbs. pic.twitter.com/M1TfjUIkYb
— Aaron Reichlin-Melnick (@ReichlinMelnick) October 18, 2022
Citing an unnamed Mexican official, Mexico’s migration agency said on Monday that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had asked the US to take in one Venezuelan asylum seeker for each person expelled to Mexico.
“That way, if the Biden administration takes in 24,000 Venezuelans, Mexico will not accept more of 24,000 Venezuelans expelled from the United States,” the agency said in a statement.
To be eligible for the programme, DHS said applicants must have a sponsor in the US, pass a security check, and fly at their own expense to an airport in the US. Those who are accepted will be able to live and work in the US legally.
DHS has said that the plan is modelled after “Uniting for Ukraine”, a programme advanced by the Biden administration that has so far allowed thousands of Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion to come to live and work in the US if they are able to secure a financial sponsor.
That immigration scheme is capped at 100,000 Ukrainians.
At the same time, more than 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country since 2014, when the economy went into free fall. Most have fled to Latin American and Caribbean countries, but in recent months, many have been streaming north towards the US.