Image: A group of migrants mainly from Venezuela wade through the Rio Grande as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border. June 16, 2021. Del Rio, Texas. AP Images/Eric Gay.
As Venezuela’s economic, humanitarian and political crisis has dragged on, the number of people fleeing Venezuela has continued to rise. Over 6 million Venezuelans, or approximately 20 percent of Venezuela’s population, have fled the country, making it the largest international displacement in the hemisphere’s history. As the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted restrictive border policies and aggravated the socioeconomic situation of migrants and refugees across the region, Venezuelans increasingly sought opportunity and protection in the United States over the course of 2021.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported record numbers of Venezuelans arriving and being apprehended at the U.S. border in 2021 and early 2022. While previous years saw the majority of migrants arriving to the U.S. from Mexico and countries in the Northern Triangle, the last year saw an unprecedented spike in arrivals of Venezuelan nationals and individuals from other non-traditional countries of origin for Southwest border arrivals, such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti. Among the Venezuelans, many arrived after initially fleeing to other South American nations, and being uprooted for a second time due to a variety of factors, including a lack of opportunity in their host countries.
Between Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 and FY 2021, the number of Venezuelans encountered by CBP nationwide skyrocketed from 4,520 to 50,499—a more than tenfold increase. Meanwhile, the number of encounters of Venezuelans at the U.S. Southern border in just the first five months of FY 2022—October 2021 to February 2022—has already far surpassed the total number of Venezuelans encountered at the border for the entire previous Fiscal Year, and represents an increase of more than 4,000 percent from the same period in the previous year.
In February of this year, CBP reported a dramatic drop in the number of Venezuelan nationals encountered at the U.S. Southern border, down to 3,072 from the 22,779 reported in January, which corresponds with a recent shift in Mexico’s migratory policy towards Venezuelans. Facing pressure from the Biden administration to implement new restrictions to prevent Venezuelan and other migrant groups from moving northward, on January 21 Mexico imposed a visa requirement that makes it extremely difficult for most Venezuelans—in particular, those of a lower socioeconomic status—to legally migrate to and through the country. First, to obtain this visa, Venezuelans must provide a valid passport—which is very difficult to obtain given the breakdown of public services in Venezuela. And unless they have a formal letter of invitation from an institution to attend a specific activity, they must also show proof that they either hold property and have had stable employment for the last two years, or that they have roughly $2550 in their bank accounts. This is prohibitive for many Venezuelans fleeing a deep economic crisis where the monthly minimum wage is around $28.
The significant drop in Venezuelans encountered at the U.S. border following the imposition of Mexico’s visa requirement in January is in part due to the fact that many of the Venezuelan migrants and refugees who arrived to the U.S. last year first flew into Mexico and then traveled by foot across the border. This was also the case for Ecuadorian and Brazilian nationals, who similarly saw decreases in arrivals at the U.S. border after Mexico imposed visa requirements for those countries in September and December 2021, respectively.
The unprecedented number of Venezuelans migrating northward from initial South American host countries join large numbers of migrants from other countries, including Haiti and Cuba, crossing the perilous Darién Gap along the Colombia-Panama border. According to Panamanian authorities, the number of Venezuelans making this journey is quickly surpassing the numbers of Haitians and migrants of other nationalities. Official data shows that nearly 2,500 Venezuelan migrants and refugees have traversed the Darién Gap in the first two months of 2022—compared to 2,819 Venezuelans in all of 2021. The volume of migrants passing through the Darién Gap is of particular concern because this region is known for its inhospitable conditions, as well as the presence of organized criminal groups, which poses an extraordinary risk of violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. The journey is particularly dangerous for women, who face a high risk of rape and other forms of sexual violence by criminal actors in the region. In 2022 alone, three Venezuelan nationals have died while crossing through the Darién Gap.
Facing consistently high numbers of migrants and refugees from Venezuela and other countries traveling northward, and new migratory restrictions in Mexico, there is increasing pressure on countries in Central America to impose similar policies to curb the flow of migrants. In February, Costa Rica announced that it too would impose a visa requirement for Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan nationals.
In addition to growing restrictions in Mexico and Costa Rica on the mobility of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, Venezuelans also continue to face restrictive and inhumane border policies upon arriving at the U.S. including Title 42, a Trump-era policy implemented in March 2020 which in practice restricts the right to seek asylum under the pretense of curbing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Venezuelans have historically been expelled at much lower rates than migrants of other nationalities, in January it was reported that the Biden administration had begun expelling Venezuelans to Colombia under Title 42. Additionally, many Venezuelans have been returned across the border to wait for their asylum cases to be processed under the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, which was renewed under the Biden administration in December; According to the most recent data published in March by the Department of Homeland Security, Venezuelans currently make up 12 percent of the 1,569 individuals enrolled in Remain in Mexico. Though the administration has begun rolling back certain aspects of Title 42, and Biden is reportedly planning to phase out the policy by late May, as long as Title 42 remains in place, Venezuelans, as well as migrants and refugees of other nationalities, will continue to face significant limitations in legally migrating and exercising the right to seek asylum. Additionally, unlike every other country in Latin America, the lack of a U.S. embassy in Caracas means there is currently no way for Venezuelans to apply for a U.S. visa without traveling to a third-party country, which requires considerable resources that many Venezuelans do not have.
While the recent visa requirement imposed by Mexico appears to have temporarily curtailed the number of Venezuelans arriving at the U.S. border, it is important to note that restrictive border policies and visa requirements do not necessarily curb the flow of migration. Rather, these policies only limit the ability to migrate safely and legally, often leaving migrants and refugees with no option but to travel through informal routes, increasing their vulnerability to violence, exploitation, and extortion by criminal actors. Since Mexico imposed the visa requirement for Venezuelan nationals in January, making it more difficult for Venezuelans to travel to the country by plane, more and more Venezuelans are reportedly arriving to Mexico by foot to present their asylum cases after traveling through dangerous routes such as the Darién Gap.
Additionally, such restrictions make it more difficult for Venezuelan migrants and refugees to access regular status in their host countries, leaving them at a heightened vulnerability to economic instability and exploitation, and severely hindering their long-term socioeconomic integration. For this reason, as well as rising xenophobia and other challenges in their host countries, many have begun to return to Venezuela in recent months, where the humanitarian emergency, political persecution, and other risks associated with Venezuela’s multidimensional crisis, persist.
In the face of these challenges, and restrictive migratory policies in the United States, Mexico, and other countries, however, there is increasing pressure on the Biden administration to take meaningful steps to protect Venezuelans in the U.S. A new initiative called the Venezuelan American Caucus launched in December, which seeks to mobilize members of the Venezuelan diaspora in the United States around issues that are top priorities for Venezuelan-Americans, including immigration reform. Central to the Venezuelan American Caucus’s advocacy efforts is connecting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to a path to permanent residency, a campaign promise from President Biden that has yet to be fulfilled.
Following reports in January of Venezuelans being expelled to Colombia under Title 42 and deported to Venezuela via third countries, the Venezuelan American Caucus also publicly called on the Biden administration to allow Venezuelans in the U.S. to present their asylum cases, as is required under international human rights law. Similar calls were made by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, as well as U.S. Congressional leaders such as Senator Bob Menendez, who described the reports as “extremely disturbing.” And in February, the Venezuelan American Caucus issued a letter to President Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging the administration to expand eligibility for TPS for Venezuela to include Venezuelan nationals who have arrived in the United States after March 9, 2021, when Biden designated Venezuela for TPS.
Additionally, since the Mexican government announced in December that it would impose a new visa requirement for Venezuelans, human rights advocates and NGOs have spoken out against the decision and the implications for the right to seek asylum. In December, shortly after the announcement, Amnesty International issued a letter to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denouncing the decision and calling on regional governments to provide protection mechanisms for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. On January 21, when Mexico first started enforcing the visa, two Mexican human rights organizations, Sin Fronteras and Apoyo a Migrantes Venezolanos AC, published a statement expressing concern for the impact the visa requirement would have on the right to seek asylum and migrate safely and legally.