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Migrating Venezuelans undeterred by US plan to resume deportation flights

Venezuela has suffered political, economic and humanitarian crises over the past decade, pushing at least 7.3 million people to migrate and making food and other necessities unaffordable for those who remain

Venezuelan migrants
Venezuelan migrants who travelled on the train with the intention of reaching the United States, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, October 3, 2023.JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ (REUTERS)

At the edge of Panama’s Darien jungle Friday, Venezuelans made up the majority of migrants waiting for buses to speed them across the country to Costa Rica, where they planned to continue moving north. Annie Carrillo, a 38-year-old Venezuelan migrant traveling with her Colombian husband and another friend, said they had crossed the dense, lawless jungle from Colombia in three days after paying $350 each to a guide. When she heard about the U.S. government’s plan to restart deportation flights to Venezuela in the coming days, Carrillo said it was discouraging. “No one emigrates from their country because they want to. One migrates because you have basic needs and there isn’t support in your native country,” she said, starting to cry.

The U.S. government hopes the threat of deportation will be enough to make Venezuelans reconsider trying to enter the United States illegally and opt instead for the online appointment system to make asylum claims or other legal paths. But some migrants said Friday that it would not stop them from continuing their journey.

Venezuela has suffered political, economic and humanitarian crises over the past decade, pushing at least 7.3 million people to migrate and making food and other necessities unaffordable for those who remain. The vast majority who fled settled in neighboring countries in Latin America, but many began coming to the United States in the last three years.

Observers have pointed out that earlier this week, the Biden administration justified the expansion of temporary protected status for Venezuelans announced last month by noting the severe humanitarian challenges in the country. But now the administration has decided Venezuela is not bad enough to keep them from deporting migrants back there.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy said Friday that it is already repatriating people to countries with humanitarian situations similar to those in Venezuela. “These direct repatriations are obviously made now to Venezuela, but also to other countries that have complicated situations such as Haiti, Cuba and other countries around the world,” Blas Núñez-Neto told reporters. “What we are announcing is in accordance with our laws, with our international obligations.”

The U.S. Border Patrol encountered Venezuelans 22,000 times along the southwest border in August, nearly double the number in July, but still slightly below the 25,000 encounters in August 2022. Although Venezuelans make up about 60% of the migrants crossing the Darién Gap this year, they trail migrant numbers from countries including Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala at the U.S. border. At least 18 migrants died and more were injured Friday when a bus carrying them crashed in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Núñez-Neto said that more than 130,000 Venezuelans had arrived to the U.S. in the past year through legal paths, such as CBP One and humanitarian parole. Still more than 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) from the nearest U.S. border crossing, Carrillo hadn’t made up her mind yet about whether they would wait for an appointment to seek asylum or risk crossing and turning themselves over to U.S. border agents. She said they had heard it could take more than three months to get an appointment through CBP One, an eternity for migrants who usually spend all their money just making it to the border. “What sense is there in making this journey where every second counts and every second you’re putting your life at risk and only to arrive in a country and have them deport you just like that?” Carrillo said.

Patricia Andrade, one of the founders of the humanitarian assistance organization Venezuelan Roots in Miami, was incredulous about the possibility of mass deportations to Venezuela considering that thousands of migrants arrive every day at the southern border. “How many flights are they going to take?” Andrade said.

She said Venezuelans are fleeing their country out of desperation and will continue to come. “The announcement of deportations is not going to scare everyone,” said Andrade, whose organization provides clothes, sheets, towels and pots to Venezuelan recent arrivals. “As long as the Venezuelan problem is not resolved, people will continue arriving.”

Back in Lajas Blancas, Panama, at the edge of the Darién jungle, Jhonny Zambrano, a 20-year-old Venezuelan, waited with his parents, sister and niece. He said the family did not have a plan yet for when they reach the U.S. border, but that if he was deported, he would try again until he was successful. He had been a student in Venezuela, but the economic situation made it impossible for him to continue his studies, forcing him at times to go without eating at school. “What am I going to do in our country?” Zambrano asked. If deported, “I would do it (migrate) again to work and to get my family ahead.”

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