“The news hit me like a bucket of cold water,” says Alejaidys Morey, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who until this week was considering starting to travel to the United States.
On Wednesday, the United States announced it was expanding Title 42 — a pandemic-era provision that allows immigration officials to deport illegal migrants to Mexico on public health grounds — and unveiled a new program to allow certain Venezuelan migrants to apply to arrive at U.S. ports of entry by air with a cap of 24,000.
Both plans are designed to deter Venezuelans like Morey from attempting to illegally and dangerously enter overland across the US-Mexico border.
But many migrants who are already on the way tell CNN the Biden administration’s decision leaves them in agonizing limbo, having already given up everything to begin the march north.
They also point out that the new airport entry program favors the wealthy and well-connected — in other words, Venezuelans who can afford to fly north in the comfort of an airplane.
The Venezuelan migration crisis is more acute than ever. More than seven million Venezuelans now live abroad, according to new figures released this month by the United Nations, fleeing a humanitarian crisis in their country of origin.
Most live in other South American countries – there are more than two million in Colombia alone – but in recent months growing numbers have started heading north to the United States via Central America and Mexico, as living conditions deteriorate amid the Covid-19 pandemic and a global food crisis.
As a result, the number of Venezuelans apprehended on the US southern border is skyrocketing. Up to 180,000 Venezuelans have crossed the border in the past year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Panama and Mexico form a geographic gateway for land travelers from South America. Under the new US migration provision, any northbound migrant entering Panama or Mexico illegally will not be eligible for the program.
The trip that Morey, her husband Rodolfo and their three children planned would have been exactly that. They intended to travel first to the town of Necocli in Colombia and then trek to Panama via the Darien Gap, a 100 kilometer stretch of jungle impassable by road.
Despite the myriad dangers, 150,000 migrants have crossed on foot so far this year, according to Panamanian authorities.
Morey, who is currently in Colombia, says a return to Venezuela is impossible. In 2018, his family sold their home in Santa Teresa del Tuy, a poor town about 30 kilometers southeast of Caracas, for $1,500 to pay for the trip to Colombia.
Now she feels she has been thrown into limbo. Like so many others, she cannot afford a transcontinental flight, let alone for her whole family.
“In these circumstances, I have nowhere to go… I am afraid: what can I do? Morey told CNN.
Its location is the norm for most migrants currently traveling north.
“After so much pain, so many obstacles that we had to overcome, we are now stuck. We are in Necocli and have nowhere to go…” a Venezuelan migrant who asked to be identified only as José told CNN.
Local authorities say up to 10,000 migrants are waiting in the town to cross the bay to the Darien Gap, but some are now reconsidering their next move.
“I’m in pain, I don’t know what to do now,” says Ender Dairen, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who planned to join a group traveling north from Ecuador. But her plans changed after talking with other migrants online.
“A few friends are considering moving to wherever they are, somewhere between Costa Rica and Nicaragua,” he told CNN. “Everyone you talk to says the same thing: the whole road has collapsed; we can no longer travel.
In a call with reporters on Thursday, senior Homeland Security official Blas Nuñez-Neto said the goal was to reduce the number of migrants illegally approaching the U.S. southern border and, at the same time, to create a legal route for eligible persons.
But the plan has drawn rare criticism from Venezuelan opposition members, who are generally aligned with Washington in their fight against authoritarian Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
“The US government has announced a cruel migration policy, which makes the situation of thousands of Venezuelans more painful,” tweeted Henrique Capriles, a two-time presidential candidate and one of the few anti-Maduro leaders still living in Caracas.
Carlos Vecchio, the official representative of the Venezuelan opposition in Washington, also tweeted that the plan was “insufficient for the scale” of the migration crisis in Venezuela.
“We recognize the efforts of @POTUS to seek alternatives to the migration crisis through humanitarian parole, for orderly and safe migration for Venezuelans,” he said.
“But the 24,000 visas announced are insufficient given the scale of the problem. A reflection is necessary in this respect. »
The Venezuelan government has not commented on the new US policy.
But aid organisations, such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF), have echoed criticism from others that 24,000 legal permits are not enough – and insist that deporting others to Mexico under the title 42 should not be allowed.
“We are shocked by the Biden administration’s decision to begin deporting Venezuelans under Title 42, a cruel and inhumane policy that has no basis to protect public health and should have been removed long ago. “said Avril Benoit, executive director of MSF in a statement. .
“While we welcome the deployment of a special humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans, ensuring safe pathways to the United States should be the norm, not the exception.”
Rights activists argue that asylum seekers should have a chance to present their cases in the United States before being turned away.
Still, some migrants say they see a ray of hope in the Biden administration’s new stance.
Oscar Chacin, 44, a boxing instructor who had been considering the idea of traveling to the United States via Central America for weeks, told CNN he now sees a legal route to migrate.
“For me, it’s actually better. It’s going to make it worse for so many people, but for me it’s fine,” he said. “I have family in the United States, friends and former boxing students, some of them will be able to sponsor me and my family.”
Her son, Oscar Alexander, is already in Mexico and entered before new US immigration rules were unveiled.
“He’s going to stay here now. He is already looking for a job and we will present the documentation as soon as we find the sponsor,” Chacin said.
“Then we will wait for the papers. Maybe one, maybe two years, but we’ll get there, I’m sure!