Faced with rising numbers of Venezuelans coming to the border and seeking asylum, the Biden administration has initiated what could be its most extensive crackdown on migrants since taking office. After reaching a deal with Mexico to expand Title 42 to Venezuelans, the Biden administration on October 12 began expelling hundreds of Venezuelans back to Mexico, denying them a chance to seek asylum. The administration began this crackdown at the same time it opened a new pathway for at least 24,000 Venezuelans to enter the United States through humanitarian parole.
The Biden administration clearly hopes that this carrot and stick approach will reduce the number of Venezuelans crossing the border and seeking asylum. But the success of this program remains to be seen, especially as the effort seems far more stick than carrot. With thousands of Venezuelans traveling north every day, an opportunity only available to 24,000 people seems unlikely to serve as a meaningful alternate pathway for migrants.
The Crackdown on Venezuelans
Over the last decade, nearly 25% of the population of Venezuela has left home and sought refuge abroad. Nearly 7 million Venezuelan refugees live in other countries, mostly those nearest to Venezuela. While increasing numbers of Venezuelans have been seeking asylum in the United States for years, most came on visas, rather than through the border.
Since President Biden took office, the number of Venezuelans coming to the U.S-Mexico border every month has skyrocketed, rising from 295 in January 2021 to 33,000 in September 2022. This has presented a challenge to the administration. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) largely cannot expel or deport Venezuelans, Cubans or Nicaraguans.
Those three countries generally do not permit the United States to expel migrants by plane—and until October 12, Mexico refused to accept most expulsions as well. Given these diplomatic and logistical limitations, DHS has been forced to release hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans at the border.
But that changed following extensive negotiations between the Biden administration and Mexico. While Mexico’s end in the negotiations hasn’t been disclosed publicly, it likely involved DHS’s decision the same day to increase the number of H-2B seasonal agricultural visas by 65,000. Most of these visas will go to Mexicans.
Following the announcement on October 12, DHS officials bussed hundreds of Venezuelans who had already crossed the border to ports of entry and sent them back to Mexico. Some families ended up separated in the chaos. Many were left destitute and distraught, having spent their entire life savings just to make it to the border. For some, the situation became even worse when Mexico gave them documents ordering them to leave the country within 15 days.
Since the program began, DHS has expelled hundreds of migrants back to Mexico. However, there appear to be significant limits on the expulsions. On October 17, Mexico’s immigration ministry posted a notice indicating that Mexico would only permit the Biden administration to expel 24,000 Venezuelans, one for each Venezuelan granted parole under the new program. Other Mexican government sources have yet to confirm this. In the past, Mexican statements about limits on Title 42 expulsion have been broadly disregarded by the U.S. government.
DHS’s New Parole Program for Venezuelans
Accompanying the crackdown on Venezuelans is a new parole program, modeled after “Uniting for Ukraine,” begun in April when thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war arrived at the U.S-Mexico border seeking asylum. Like that program, people already inside the United States will be able to fill out paperwork to sponsor a Venezuelan national to come to the United States and receive humanitarian parole for two years. However, there are limitations, including an overall cap of 24,000 beneficiaries.
Individuals who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization after October 19 will be categorically barred from eligibility for this new program. The same goes for those who enter Mexico itself irregularly via its southern border, or who cross the Darién Gap from Colombia into Panama without permission. Individuals also must pass background checks and cannot have been deported from the United States in the last 5 years.
In addition, any Venezuelan who has dual nationality or who already has some form of permanent status in a third country is barred from the program. According to the United Nations, roughly 2.4 million Venezuelans are living “under other legal forms of stay in the Americas,” meaning this could exclude millions of people.
Finally, those granted parole under this program must arrange their own transportation to the United States and must arrive by plane. This is likely intended to discourage people from waiting in Mexican border towns while they go through the application process.
As with Uniting for Ukraine, individuals wishing to sponsor a Venezuelan are required to certify to the U.S. government that they will provide financial support and housing for two years. They also have to pass a background check.
Once a person is granted parole and arrives by plane, they will be permitted to work in the United States while their status is active. But since parole is temporary, unless they can apply for and win asylum or find another way to adjust their status, people who enter via this program may later find themselves forced to leave.
The Biden Administration’s Abandonment of Asylum
While the effectiveness of these programs remains to be seen, one key takeaway from the announcement is that the Biden administration is increasingly abandoning its commitments to the concept of asylum.
U.S. asylum law is crystal clear that Venezuelans who cross the border irregularly have a right to apply for asylum. But in expanding Title 42 to Venezuelans, the Biden administration has callously stripped thousands of that right, ignoring the possibility that they will suffer persecution and harm as a result.
While the parole program accompanying the crackdown represents a clear shift from the enforcement-only policies of the Trump administration, asylum seekers deserve more than crumbs. For the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have already left home and risked so much for a chance at safety in the United States, the new program will likely offer little hope at safety. And for many of those expelled back to Northern Mexico over the last week, only uncertainty and danger remain.
Rather than one step forward and two steps back, the Biden administration should act more boldly to expand pathways to legal status while simultaneously respecting the right to seek asylum.