Migration trends have changed radically over recent months, with rapidly increasing numbers of protection-seeking Venezuelans arriving in the U.S. in search of a safe haven now exceeding that of migrants from Central America.
In the most recent response to this, the Biden Administration announced plans for a humanitarian parole program for some Venezuelans, while for the first time expelling hundreds per day to Mexico under the Title 42 pandemic policy.
In this two-part interview, Maureen Meyer, Vice President for Programs; and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, reflect on the latest trends in migration to the United States, the consequences of the U.S. focus on reducing the number of migrants arriving at the border over the rebuild of the asylum system and other limitations of U.S. migration policies.
What are the new migration trends in Latin America? What are we seeing in terms of the nationalities of people traveling towards the United States?
Adam Isacson (AI): Until 2020, at least 90 percent of migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border were from four countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In August of 2022, for the first time ever, those four countries accounted for only 49 percent of the total. That is the most remarkable shift. It’s a distortion created in large part by the Title 42 order launched by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, continued by the Biden administration and prolonged even further by the U.S. federal courts. According to the order, you can’t come to a U.S. port of entry for anything if you’re not documented, and you cannot, unless you have a really rare exception, ask for asylum, even if you’re apprehended by Border Patrol.
Two and a half years ago, Mexico agreed to take citizens from its own country and from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, over the land border, and to expel them without providing them the legally required chance to ask for asylum. (On October 12, Venezuela became the fifth country whose citizens Mexico accepts as Title 42 expulsions across the land border.) That’s easy for the United States to do. This year, your chance of being expelled if you are Mexican is 86 percent; it is 63 percent if you are from Guatemala, 67 percent if you are from Honduras, 58 percent in the case of El Salvador, and 25 percent if you are from Haiti. No other country is in the double-digit percentages. The next one is Colombia, with chances at 7 percent. The upholding of Title 42 authority is the main reason for this. In fact, in August 2022 migration from Mexico and Central America was a third less than it was in August 2021 at the U.S.-Mexico border. And now the numbers of Venezuelans coming are rising exponentially.
Does this mean that there are now less people coming to the United States from Central America, or is it that they are staying in México?
AI: Mexico’s own apprehensions of Northern Triangle citizens are also significantly lower, while the number of Venezuelans is now larger. Last August, for instance, there were around 16,000 apprehensions of Venezuelans in Mexico, the next highest nationality was Honduras with only about 5,000. What are the options for these people? Request protection in Mexico? Some may actually qualify for asylum there. But some of these Central American countries have now become more livable, although I think with the recent storms you will probably see more migration no matter what.
Maureen Meyer (MM): These numbers are saying a lot about who is getting admitted into the United States. And it is not like someone leaving Mexico or Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador might not have a valid claim for protection in the U.S. These are countries with high levels of violence and persecution. (The same can be said for Venezuelans who will now also be denied the ability to seek asylum in the U.S.) So, now you have a double standard at the border, your ability to enter the country and request protection is more based on nationality than what you might be fleeing from. There are some exceptions, if you’re lucky enough to have a service provider, or an organization that helps you navigate the system at the ports of entry, particularly in vulnerable cases. As long as Title 42 is in place your chance of being able to enter the U.S. and pursue your case really just depends on where you’re from.
If you’re Mexican, where are you going to go? Are you going to request asylum in Guatemala? If you’re a Central American fleeing persecution, you have an ability to stay in Mexico. And there are lots of Central Americans that have refugee status in Mexico that are working, settling but if you are Mexican, you’re stuck at the border, fleeing your own country, and being told by Border Patrol agents in the U.S. “sorry, there’s no asylum for you here.”
Is Mexico’s willingness to provide protection to people from Central America and Venezuela just to maintain a cordial relation with the U.S.?
AI: Mexico has agreed to start taking Venezuelans in addition to Central Americans. I don’t see much change happening with AMLO (Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador). The Mexican Government is probably getting some advantages in the bilateral relationship from taking this many people. The United States offered tens of thousands of new temporary work visas for Mexican citizens. Also, some Mexican officials probably believe, quietly, that the likelihood of expulsion will deter more Venezuelans from attempting the journey across Mexico in the first place.
MM: A big part of the U.S.- Mexico bilateral relationship still revolves around migration. AMLO has shown his government to be a very willing partner with the United States on immigration enforcement, whether that’s sending thousands of members of the national guard to Mexico’s southern and northern borders for immigration enforcement, stepping up efforts to bring the numbers of migrants down, or now deciding to accept Venezuelans who have been expelled from the U.S. Even with the occasional tensions in the bilateral relationship what all of this is showing is that the AMLO administration prioritizes cooperation with the U.S. on migration.
What has prompted increasing fluxes of Venezuelans? How much is due to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela versus other regional dynamics?
AI: The latest number of people that have left Venezuela, a country originally of thirty million people, is 7.1 million since the mid-2010s. Almost all of them, at least 80 percent, settled elsewhere in South America. Most of them have been trying to scratch out a living with uncertain migratory status, facing a lot of discrimination. Half of them are unable to eat three meals a day, according to a new UN needs assessment.
In the middle of 2021, however, something changed. Part of it is probably a result of re-opening of borders after the pandemic. Some of it probably has to do with misconstruing the Biden administration’s granting of Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans who had been in the U.S. since before January 2021. In addition, Mexico did not require visas of Venezuelans visiting with passports, just like U.S. citizens, until this year. With that legal status, Venezuelans were flying into Cancun or Mexico City, taking a bus or even a plane to the Mexico-U.S. border, going through checkpoints with their documents in order, then turning themselves in to U.S. authorities and seeking asylum.
By December 2021, 24,000 Venezuelans were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the United States could not expel them under Title 42 because it would have to do so by air, to a country whose government it doesn’t even recognize. So, under a heavy U.S. suggestion, in January of 2022, Mexico started requiring visas of Venezuelans, and that air bridge just stopped. By February, the apprehensions were down to 3,000. But then, the number of Venezuelans arriving at the border started to rise again, along with a vertiginous rise in the number of Venezuelans passing through the Darién Gap in Panama, coming through Colombia and Ecuador. Until now, the Darién Gap had always been seen as an impenetrable barrier, the old growth jungle, an extremely dangerous place where hundreds of people die.
Around March, Venezuelans started taking this route. And the flow has increased to the point where, in September alone, 48,000 people, 80 percent of them Venezuelan, went through the Darién Gap. That’s 1,600 people a day. And every month seems to be something like 50 percent more than the previous one. That is what we are seeing with Venezuelan migration now and it’s all U.S. bound or at least it was until the Biden administration’s recent announcement. By September, Venezuela was already the number two country after Mexico in terms of arrivals to the U.S.-Mexico border.
What are the main differences between what happened in 2014, with the rise in the arrivals of Central Americans and their kids, which brought the Obama administration to call it a “humanitarian crisis” and what is taking place now?
MM: First, Venezuelans are a population that is very difficult for the United States to send back, particularly given the break in diplomatic relations, making it hard to return Venezuelans to their home country. This is similar to what happens with people from Cuba and Nicaragua, where deportations are also very limited or nonexistent.
AI: One thing about the spring of 2014 is that the Obama administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were sort of caught with their pants down. They had set up an entire system for dealing with migration that was completely designed for single adults looking for work and trying to avoid apprehension, all of their Border Patrol stations just looked like little jails. They tried to make the experience as unpleasant as possible and deport people as quickly as possible. The system was not set up for asylum seekers, nor for children and families. So, a result of that was these very shocking images of people crowded into these centers and children lying on the floor of jail cells with mylar blankets on them. These were the images of chaos. The Republican party used that a lot for political advantage.
The Trump administration got a lot of mileage out of similar horrible images of people forced to wait under bridges to be processed. And then in 2021, the Biden administration, which was brand new, and hadn’t put any new infrastructure in place, got hit by that in the spring of 2021, with more images of children crowded into processing centers. What is different this year is that the Biden administration is doing everything it can to at least avoid the chaos. Large numbers of people are being released into border towns, which creates a different set of challenges. But you don’t have these images of chaos. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been putting a lot of money into things like mobile processing centers and moving staff around in a much nimbler way in order to handle these waves when they happen.
And what is happening in the communities? In 2014 we saw the chaos and the crisis also in the receiving communities, a lot of pressure on the school and health systems. Were the recent arrivals of Venezuelans any different?
MM: I think the situations are different. In the case of Central Americans, the support network at the border was set up to fly or bus people to various parts of the country, particularly in the cases of those that have contacts or family members in the U.S. And this is perhaps the uniqueness of the Venezuelan population: a lot of the Venezuelans who were arriving had no contacts in the U.S. and no destination. They don’t have the same support network. And I think that’s where there is a need to have a different response. When there were high numbers of Venezuelans being admitted at the border you saw a strain put on the different cities where they were being sent. With this new announcement about the very limited parole program for Venezuelans, it seems like what the administration is trying to do is curtail that by saying: “if you have someone in the U.S that will sponsor your petition to come into the United States (which is what they’re doing with Ukrainians as well), we will admit a small number of you at the ports of entry at the airports, but you’re going to a place where you will have someone that will support you. And if not, then you’re going to be expelled to Mexico now under Title 42.”
AI: Migrants almost never are like “finally, I’m in McAllen, Texas, this is my destination; my dreams have come true.” No, they have a family or even a job waiting for them sometimes or a network elsewhere in the country. And every U.S. border city at this point now has a respite center, usually a church run or privately run charity, where migrants can check in. Usually, Border Patrol takes them there when they’re released with their immigration paperwork. There, they get a meal, some clothes, and some basic services, the workers help them get in touch with relatives in the U.S. if they have them. One of the main things these centers do is prevent migrants from ending up on the streets or at the bus station in a border city.
So, in the short term, with a large number of new arrivals from any country there could be a strain, especially on the education or health systems. However, not for the welfare or unemployment systems because in the U.S. the local economies have been absorbing their labor as fast as possible at a time of very low unemployment.
What is the foreseeable future of Title 42?
AI: It is slowly moving through the U.S. courts. In April of 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the Covid-19 pandemic was not severe enough to warrant having Title 42 anymore. And they set the date of May 23, for the last day of Title 42. Immediately, Republican governors put down a lawsuit that went before a Trump appointed judge in the Fifth Circuit, demanding that Title 42 remain in place, really on the most tenuous of public health arguments, and the judge said yes, it should remain in place.
So, under court order, Title 42 continues as a zombie policy almost indefinitely, because the federal court system moves pretty slowly, it has not even hit the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in the end, will probably uphold that judge’s ruling up to the Supreme Court.
Title 42 is likely to be in place through most of or maybe all of 2023 regardless of the pandemic, which is a very political decision. That said, Title 42, as we’ve seen, has become a policy for the single adults of Mexico and the Central American countries, and now Venezuelans. The administration refuses to apply it to unaccompanied children. The biggest damage that it does right now, across the board, is that it closes the 45 land border ports of entry to people who would otherwise be able to come, not pay a smuggler to take them across the river or climb the wall, actually just come up to the line and ask a U.S. CBP officer for asylum the orderly legal way as it is supposed to happen. And right now, zero people get to do that—except for a very small number of humanitarian exemptions.