Venezuelan migrants fleeing political repression and dire economic circumstances are increasingly traveling to the United States’s southern border, and nearly all are being admitted under the Biden administration.
The influx is drawing comparison to the mid-century surge of refugees to the U.S. as tens of thousands of people fled Cuba after the revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro sought to align the country with the Soviet Union and communism. Amid the rush of Cubans attempting to make it across the Atlantic Ocean to Florida, the U.S. government in 1966 rolled out the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which guaranteed anyone who made it to Florida would be allowed to pursue residency after one year.
The displacement of more than 5 million Venezuelans since President Nicolas Maduro came to power in 2011 is one of the largest crises in the world. Most Venezuelan migrants have fled to other countries in South America, including Colombia, Chile, and Brazil, while others in March began setting their sights on the U.S.
As the border crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border worsened for the third consecutive month in April, Border Patrol agents noted that they were seeing a lot of people from Venezuela who had trekked 3,000 miles across eight countries.
Last month, more than 6,000 Venezuelan citizens illegally crossed the southern border and were apprehended by federal law enforcement. Just 265 were sent back south of the border or returned to South America, while 5,770 were taken into custody.
Never before have Venezuelans arrived at the border in those numbers. Federal data reveals 20 to 80 Venezuelans were encountered at the border in each year from 2007 to 2018. Even in 2019, amid the surge of families and children from Central America that created a humanitarian crisis, only about 2,200 people from Venezuela arrived at the border the entire year.
Border officials categorize migrants who arrive at the U.S. land border by demographics: adults, families, and children. Children are admitted under U.S. laws that protect minors who arrive alone. Upward of 90% of adults have been turned away rather than being taken into custody, a policy that was implemented in March 2020 under former President Donald Trump to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in law enforcement facilities. Families who come across are supposed to be sent back across the border, but many are being allowed into the country and released.
Although President Joe Biden has technically not reversed a policy for turning away families, just 25% are actually being turned away, and 75% are being allowed into the U.S., oftentimes without being ordered to follow up in immigration court, acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson testified before Congress on Thursday. The change in enforcement has improved Venezuelan migrants’ chances of being admitted.
Those leaving the South American country are doing so for a number of reasons, according to Jessica Bolter, the associate policy analyst of U.S. immigration policy for the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Although the reasons they depart may not seem political, things such as food and medicine shortages in Venezuela are, in fact, the result of the Maduro administration’s disbursal of supplies to its supporters and not the public at large.
“While some experience direct political persecution, in the vein of many Cubans fleeing in the first decades of the Castro regime, more often they’re fleeing for a combination of reasons including lack of economic opportunity, lack of access to basic necessities like food and health care, as well as security concerns,” Bolter wrote in an email.
While some people may be leaving because they cannot feed their families or get adequate healthcare amid the coronavirus pandemic, the underlying reason they cannot get access is that the Maduro government has allowed its political supporters to get priority for subsidized food deliveries, Bolter said.
“This is a mixed migration flow, but at the root of various factors driving migration, which may seem non-political on the surface, is the Maduro government’s corruption, preferencing of political supporters, and penalizing of political opponents,” Bolter added.
On March 9, the Biden administration announced it would provide temporary protection from deportation for any Venezuelan in the U.S. who did not have permission to be in the country. The government estimated 323,000 people will be eligible. The migrants arriving after that date would not be eligible to apply for protection, but the number of migrants who have traveled here since has grown, possibly as a result of the show of good faith to Venezuelans. A neighboring country, Colombia, put forward a plan to give Venezuelan migrants 10-year protections to live there.
“Other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean should follow Colombia’s lead and provide broad-based protection for Venezuelans,” Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco said in a statement. “Conditions in Venezuela remain unsafe and no one should be compelled to return against their will.”
The Venezuelan population in the U.S. has risen considerably since 2015, from 256,000 to 394,000 in 2018. Its citizens make up the fifth-largest South American immigrant population in the U.S.