Venezuelan survival migration in the US-Mexico migration corridor
The new arrangement to manage Venezuelan survival migration at the Mexico-US border couples a limited and restrictive regularisation pathway with repressive and punitive measures for irregular migration.
On 12 October 2022, the United States and Mexican governments reported that they had reached an agreement on a new approach to migration management in the region, focusing on the management of the Venezuelan population. International human rights organisations, once again, criticised Mexico for doing the US’ dirty work. And only two days later, images of Venezuelans deported to Mexico by the US immigration authorities began to fill the media. In the first four days of implementation, Mexico received 1,768 Venezuelan nationals deported from the US. In this post, I examine some of the implications of this problematic migration management decision.
The US Government’s response to the Venezuelan exodus
Since 2014, Venezuelan nationals have been displaced in large numbers across the Americas. This, make no mistake, is a survival migration. According to the UNHCR, the Venezuelan exodus is ‘the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world’, with 6.8 millions refugees and migrants living abroad, around 80 percent of whom are hosted in 17 countries in Latin American and Caribbean countries. The urgency of the situation faced by the displaced Venezuelan population has been highlighted by human rights organisations around the world.
In 2016, Venezuelan asylum applications to the US soared. However, it was not until 2021 that a significant increase in the arrival of this displaced population to the US southern border began to be observed. While in the period between 2014 and 2019 the average number of encounters of Venezuelan nationals at the land border was 127, in 2022 the monthly average rose to 15,494. The US authorities responded with a ‘carrot and stick’ policy. While on September 22, the Secretary of State announced ‘$376 million in new humanitarian assistance to respond to the needs of vulnerable Venezuelans in Venezuela, Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and their generous host communities across the region’. On 12 October, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a ‘New Migration Enforcement Process for Venezuela’.
In line with the history of US migration control, this new process involves a limited and restricted regularisation pathway, coupled with repressive and punitive measures for irregular migration. On the one hand, the DHS promised to implement a ‘process to lawfully and safely bring up to 24,000 qualifying Venezuelans into the United States’. On the other hand, using Title 42 expulsion policy, Venezuelans who seek to enter the US irregularly will be returned to Mexico. The number of persons who access legal and safe pathways to move to the US is incredibly low considering that only in August 2022, 25,349 Venezuelans nationals ‘encountered’ the US migration authorities at the US-Mexico border. This means that the Venezuelan population represented the second largest group of migrants intercepted by US Customs and Border Protection, after Mexicans.
It is highly relevant that the DHS press release quotes the ‘Biden-Harris Administration’s ongoing work to build a fair, orderly, and secure migration system’. By introducing the word ‘fair’ to the migration management mantra, the Biden-Harris Administration drags morality into migration politics. Fairness, in any context, is a loaded and slippery concept, and its use in migration policy is surprising for the irony it gives rise to. After all, what is fair about hierarchies of mobility?
The Mexican side of the border
As of September 2022, Mexico was the country with the second lowest number of Venezuelan refugees in Latin America, second only to Trinidad and Tobago. In 2021, the Mexican authorities received 6,134 requests for refugee status, out of which 63 percent had a positive outcome. As with other populations on the move in the country, Mexican authorities have been implementing a bordering through exemption policy vis-à-vis the Venezuelan population. From January to August 2022, Mexican authorities intercepted 25,486 Venezuelan nationals, returned 466 and released from detention 20,225 persons handing them ‘oficios de salida’, i.e. a letter requesting the migrant to leave the country by their own means within 30 days.
The entry points into Mexico for Venezuelan migrants expelled from the US under Title 42 are the border cities of Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, Piedras Negras, and Matamoros. These cities, like other border cities in northern Mexico, have been singled out for high levels of criminal violence and insecurity. Yet, neither these detailed studies, nor the warnings against travel issued by the US State Department due to ‘crime and kidnappings’, or indeed the ample evidence of the ‘exploitation boom’ created by the implementation of the highly controversial Remain in Mexico programme seemed to matter. Thus, the US and Mexican authorities decided once again to forcibly move thousands of migrants to Mexico to live in uncertainty, facing risks of violence. In this sense, the unavoidable reality is that the expulsion of the Venezuelan nationals to Mexico violates international obligations to not return a person to a territory where their life or integrity is at risk, or where they may face persecution (the principle of non-refoulement).
Mexican authorities’ complacent response to ‘temporarily allow the entry of some Venezuelan citizens across the northern border’ must be understood against the backdrop of long-established US-Mexico border security agreements, the creation of the Mexican Transit Control Regime, and the current administration’s overt willingness to serve as an extension of US immigration control. Hence, one cannot ignore the irony that, in a desperate attempt to claim sovereign power, the official press release by the Mexican authorities’ states that ‘Mexico will continue its unilateral policy of receiving migrants through Title 42 for humanitarian reasons’.
Moreover, it is crucial to shed light on the ‘border games’ that underlie this so-called US-Mexico partnership. It is no coincidence that both governments used the same press releases announcing the Migration Enforcement Process for Venezuelans to proudly publicise the US commitment ‘to further expanding lawful labour pathways for Mexican and Northern Central American nationals’ and the granting of ‘65,000 new H-2B visas, including a set-aside of 20,000 to nationals of Northern Central American countries and Haiti’. Hence, this shows, in a blatant way, an often-hidden facet of the geopolitics of migration management, the quid pro quo agreements.
Civil society organisations have strongly criticised the measure and expressed concern at reports of Venezuelan migrants receiving ‘oficios de salida’ by the Mexican migration enforcement authorities, asking them to leave the country within 15 days. Logically, the implications of the use of this migratory resolution differ when dealing with a population in transit (south-north journey) than when dealing with a deported population that is ‘frozen in motion’. While for the former group, it represents the possibility of reaching the US border, for the latter it represents the total abandonment of the host state. In practical terms, the population expelled from the US is left to fend for itself in Mexico, and it is likely that, as was the case during the implementation of Remain in Mexico, the Mexican state’s capacity to cope with this influx will be saturated and it will rely on organised civil society to address the needs of this population. Furthermore, one should not lose sight of the latent risk that this population gets trapped in the limbo of irregularity, which, as is well known, will mean exclusion, exploitability, and precariousness.
It may be pointless at this point to recall Biden’s fierce criticism of Trump’s immigration policies (which he is now drawing on), and it may even be too late to call on the Biden-Harris administration to deliver on its promise to build a secure and humane immigration system. However, given that Mexico has been a strong supporter of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, it seems that there is still room for action. Clarity can be demanded in the Mexican Government’s position, as well as clear information on the strategies and protocols that are being put in place to address and protect the safety and integrity of this population.