Migration dynamics in the Americas have changed dramatically in recent years.
Until 2020, at least 90 percent of migrants and asylum seekers encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from four countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a major shift in migration flows and by August 2022, the number of people arriving at the border from Venezuela far exceeded all other nationalities, except for Mexico.
The truth is that this change should not come as a surprise to anyone. In the last decade, more than 7.1 million people fled the deep humanitarian and human rights crisis in which Venezuela is immersed. This represents more than a quarter of the country’s total population. More than 80 percent of these people now live in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, in many cases with uncertain migration status, facing discrimination and xenophobia, and unable to meet their basic needs. For groups in vulnerable situations, such as refugee women, an alarming level of gender-based violence has been documented in countries such as Colombia and Peru, the two main recipients.
In this context, an increasing number of people began to make their way towards the United States.
Despite some positive steps taken in some countries – including the program promoted by the administration of former President Iván Duque that has so far regularized at least 1.6 million people from Venezuela in Colombia – most governments in the region did not take the kind of actions required to meet the enormous needs of the world’s largest refugee population outside of countries in armed conflict.
Unfortunately, the U.S. response with respect to the immigration and refugee issue has not been up to the task either. On the contrary, in March 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Donald Trump Administration issued an order called Title 42, which establishes that no one can arrive at a U.S. port of entry without documentation – even to request asylum – and that migrants found at the border can be quickly expelled to Mexico or to their country of origin without the right to seek protection. The order was issued under the guise of safeguarding the U.S. population in the context of the pandemic and although the Biden Administration has tried to end the program and has admitted the entry of particularly vulnerable people into the U.S., its goal has always been to stop migration, even of those in need of protection.
As part of Title 42, Mexico agreed to receive individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and now Venezuela – expelled from the U.S. border.
The situation of people in need of protection from Venezuela also became more complex. Until January 2022, Mexico did not require tourist visas for them, but that changed when the number of asylum seekers in the United States increased.
At the beginning of 2022, this increase was particularly noticeable in the number of people traveling through the Darien crossing, a jungle area between Colombia and Panama known for its danger. Despite the risks, the route continues to be used by thousands of people who, in the most precarious of ways, hope to reach the United States.
It is estimated that in the month of September alone, some 48,000 people crossed through the zone, 80 percent of them from Venezuela. This is the equivalent of some 1,600 people per day and an increase of approximately 50 percent compared to August.
While the Biden Administration has taken a more regional and comprehensive approach to migration, promoting addressing the “root causes” of migration, helping to strengthen asylum systems in several countries, and supporting receiving communities, at the border the U.S. system is designed to address migration as it was prior to 2014 – when the “typical” migrant was a single person, mostly Mexican – coming to the country for economic reasons. There is still no effective reception system for individuals seeking protection at the border nor a robust asylum system that can process the large backlog of cases and new applications in a timely manner.
But beyond the investment that would have to be made to strengthen the asylum system in the United States, the Biden Administration needs to stop promoting policies based on containment and discouraging migration.
Urgent actions include ending Title 42, currently under litigation in the United States, and restoring the right to seek asylum at the border for all nationalities, as established in national and international law.
In addition, increase the opportunities for people in Venezuela to apply for humanitarian visas in the United States, including by raising the number of eligible persons for the new program to more than 24,000 and ensuring that it is available even to those who have not been able to obtain a passport due to administrative difficulties in their country.
But this is not just a responsibility of the Biden administration. The migration challenges of the Americas are regional challenges that require regional approaches and strategies. This is the only way to ensure that asylum seekers get the protection they need, and the protection they are entitled to receive. It is imperative that the governments of the Americas take action to build a regional protection system that puts human rights at the center.
This article was originally published in Divergentes.