The Venezuelans who left too late: migrants stranded by abrupt Biden policy change

Migrants will no longer be able to join their families in the US while they wait their turn in the asylum process but instead forced to languish in Mexico

The news could not have reached Remira Alarsa at a worse moment.

Since leaving her home in Venezuela last month, the former teacher, her husband and nephew had trekked thousands of miles through seven countries, determined to resettle in the US – only to be robbed of their savings in Guatemala.

Soon afterwards, she learned that it might all have been for nothing.

On 12 October, the Biden administration announced that it would deport Venezuelan migrants to Mexico, under a previously obscure public health law, Title 42, which was used for summary expulsions by the Trump administration and has been continued under Joe Biden.

Venezuelans arriving at the southern border will no longer be able to join their families in the US while they wait their turn in the asylum process, but will be forced to languish in Mexico, where they are routinely targeted for rape, robbery and extortion.

The abrupt implementation of Title 42 for Venezuelans has created an arbitrary cutoff, and left tens of thousands to an uncertain future.

Alarsa is now in Tapachula, a migrant hub on the Mexico-Guatemala border where refugees are processed by the Mexican government. With the length of Mexico still ahead of her and at least two weeks before she reaches the US border and her fate with it, she must decide whether to turn back or forge ahead.

“We have to keep going, as there is no other option. I keep trying to tell myself that I didn’t leave two weeks too late, that this was the perfect timing. But at every stop, money is taken from you, little by little. And now we’re going to have to pay a lot more,” Alarsa said.

Critics of Title 42 say it represents a gutting of the right to request asylum for vulnerable people with few other options.

“Just at the moment that the Biden administration is fighting a lawsuit to try to end Title 42, they are also expanding it, which is just baffling. We’ve lost just about any pretense that this is a health measure. They are using a backdoor way to end the right to asylum,” said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Nearly 7 million Venezuelans have fled economic collapse and political repression since 2018, most of them settling elsewhere in South America. But this year has seen an unprecedented surge of migrants from the country walking north.

In most recent years, the number of Venezuelans detained at the US southern border has been fewer than 100, but between November 2021 and September 2022, about 150,000 Venezuelans have made the dangerous journey over land to the US.

“If they deport me to Mexico, I’ll stay and work here. I’ll work anywhere they let me – economically, every option would be better than going back to Venezuela. I was making twenty dollars a month in Caracas!” said Alcides Granado, who was lounging in Tapachula’s central plaza, sheltering from the punishing sun under a floppy cloth hat.

But in another shock to those still heading north, Venezuelans deported over the past week have received a notice from the Mexican government upon their arrival, demanding that they leave the country within 15 days exactly how they came – through the southern border with Guatemala.

Venezuelan migrants walk towards Tapachula from Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on 14 October.
Venezuelan migrants walk towards Tapachula from Huixtla, Chiapas state, Mexico, on 14 October. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Many in Tapachula worry they will be forced back to this city in a few short weeks.

None are planning to return to Venezuela the way they came, through the jungle of the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, where travellers must negotiate treacherous jungle terrain, flash-floods and predatory gangs.

“If you gave me a million dollars right now, I still would not enter the Darién again,” said Remira’s husband, Ramón Iflán.

Some of the Venezuelans who will be deported from the US to Mexico – and then possibly forced out of Mexico as well – have nothing to return to in their home country, having sold everything they own aside from what they can carry on their backs.

Many have not even left any family behind, bringing children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and even grandparents on the journey with them.

In Tapachula’s central plaza, hundreds of Venezuelans huddle, trying to come up with a reasonable plan B. One man suggested holding a protest march to get the attention of US authorities, but there was little support for his idea.

Others were already raising money to pay coyotes who traffic people over the border for up to $10,000 a passenger. These arrangements can be extremely dangerous; in July, 50 migrants from Central America and Mexico died in an overheated truck when they were abandoned on the side of the road by smugglers in Texas.

“The smugglers who have already been doing really well under Title 42, as it has been used on people from the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador] now have a huge, huge new consumer base,” Isaacson said. “I don’t know of a single border city where shelters are not already overflowing. There will be more people on the street, more people kidnapped, and those who do make it into the US and evade capture will have a very unstable existence.”


Lillian Perlmutter in Tapachula

The GuardianTramp

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