When they arrived at the border between Mexico and the United States, the Venezuelan teacher Mayerlin Mayor and her daughter Victoria did not expect to find a mighty river. The coyotes had told them that when they crossed it the water would barely be up to their ankles. But once there, there was no time to think about it much. On January 18, 2022, they crossed and at one point they no longer hit bottom, their relatives in Venezuela told local media. According to the story, they fell into a hole and the girl drowned on the journey that thousands of Venezuelans are making to touch US soil, surrender to a border patrol agent and seek asylum.
Three days after Mayerlin and her daughter tried to cross, the visa requirement for Venezuelans in Mexico went into effect. The migratory pressure of Venezuelans in the region continues to grow. The harsh economic and social crisis in the oil country worsens the living conditions of the poorest and the reforms of the Government of Nicolás Maduro to open the economy after decades of controls have widened the inequality gap. With this, restrictions have been increasing to try to stop a movement that has overwhelmed the countries of the region. The Venezuelan is the second largest migration in the world after that of Syrians fleeing war, according to UNHCR.
Last year, Venezuelans, after Mexicans, were the largest group to arrive at the northern border with the goal of crossing into the United States. More than 100,000 managed to cross that dangerous passage in 2021, 20 times more than the previous year, according to Brian Fincheltub, commissioner for consular affairs of the interim government of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by Washington.
The visa requirement in Mexico, which does everything possible to contain the flow of migrants to the United States, has been the most recent barrier and has dealt a heavy blow to Venezuelans. Not only for the migrants who protested this week in Tapachula, in the state of Chiapas, the first turnstile on the southern border, but also for the more than 80,000 who already live in Mexico and who aspired to reunite their families.
The requirements to obtain this document are almost impossible to meet for those who are moving around the region in search of better opportunities: demonstrate roots in the country through an employment contract, for example, and an economic solvency of more than 2,500 dollars, he explains. July Rodríguez, human rights defender and founder, together with lawyer Lizbeth Guerrero, of Support for Migrants, an organization that has been providing free guidance to Venezuelans who have left the country for five years. “This measure violates the right to asylum and to seek refuge in Mexico for a population that is already vulnerable,” denounces Guerrero, 56, who emigrated to Mexico City four years ago, has half of his family in Venezuela and shares social work with migrants with a sale of food from their home.
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In Support of Migrants, they respond to nearly a hundred messages a day through a WhatsApp number and a Facebook page from Venezuelans in transit —recently also from Central Americans from different parts of the region— with doubts about the requirements to enter legally, due to the need for legal assistance because they were arrested or to request humanitarian aid because they are on the street. In a pandemic, when they thought that work would drop, it tripled due to the crises in the host countries. “They are surrounding the Venezuelan community, that we are people who are not leaving our country for vacations,” says Rodríguez through a video call.
The activists, along with other organizations, are preparing an injunction to challenge the measure. Mexico has been the last country to join the list of those who place restrictions on Venezuelans, on January 21, and last week its neighbor Belize also announced that it would request visas. In 2022 there are 98 countries that require a visa from Venezuelans, 22 of them in the region, and most of this group has imposed it in the last five years.
Along with these walls of requirements, deportations also begin. During the government of Donald Trump, Venezuelans were deported from the United States through third countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico or the Dominican Republic, since relations between Washington and Caracas are broken and there are no direct flights between the two countries as part of the sanctions applied in 2019. This measure was harshly criticized by a Joe Biden in the presidential campaign, but they have continued under the Democratic administration, despite the fact that last year he issued a temporary protection statute for Venezuelans.
On January 27, the Department of Homeland Security reported that two Venezuelans were sent on a commercial flight to Colombia under Title 42, a disputed law from the 1940s, which allows foreigners to be expelled in a scenario of “serious danger”. ”, in which they can “introduce a communicable disease into the United States”. This health law annuls the possibility of requesting asylum and humanitarian protection and has been applied during the pandemic, under the Trump government, and is now being extended to Venezuelans. In Mexico, activists Rodríguez and Guerrero are seeing more cases of asylum refusals and almost immediate expulsions from the border with the United States.
The measure produced a crossroads of declarations between the United States and Colombia. Washington argued that the citizens were sent to Colombia because they had previously obtained some kind of immigration status in the country. A White House spokesman said that they expected flights to Colombia with deported Venezuelans to take place on a “regular basis,” hinting at an agreement with the government of Iván Duque, which his foreign minister has denied.
The deportations also raised opposition among human rights defenders. More than 100 organizations issued a statement this week demanding their arrest. “These removals under Title 42 violate the law and risk sending people back to dangerous conditions, sometimes the same ones that caused them to go in search of a safe place”, point out the text signed by Amnesty International, Oxfam and WOLA , among others.
Other countries, such as Chile, broke records for deportations in 2021, with Venezuelans and Haitians being the most numerous. In December, two days before Christmas, the president of Peru, Pedro Castillo, attended the military air base in Lima to witness the expulsion of 41 Venezuelans, which in the end could not materialize because there was no communication with the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry.
For the specialist in migration issues, Claudia Vargas Ribas, the response of the States has been the usual one when these waves occur. “What is changing is the number and conditions in which Venezuelans are leaving and the diversification of routes in the face of these legal walls imposed by countries, in addition to the worsening of the crisis in Latin American countries due to the pandemic,” says the sociologist , researcher at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. “In 2018 we did not imagine that we were going to see people leaving the country on foot, we already saw it. Nor are Venezuelans enduring high temperatures like those of the Atacama in Chile, crossing the dangerous Darien jungle or the Rio Grande to reach the United States. Hopefully we don’t see them en masse on La Bestia (the freight train that runs through Mexico from north to south) ”, she warns.
20% of the Venezuelan population – more than six million people, according to UNHCR – have left in the last six years and lead asylum requests worldwide, although the approval rate is low. At this moment, Vargas points out, Venezuelans are beginning to embody the concept of diaspora much better, since migrations to one destination are not taking place, but “migrants have already been in two or three countries before.”
In 2019, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees requested protection for Venezuelans and urged the international community to treat them as such, although since 2021 it has classified them as “Venezuelans displaced abroad”, a special category that has been questioned by defenders of human rights. “There is still a mixed migration between middle-class professionals and people with few resources, but now those who live with the greatest shortages in Venezuela are leaving, with a lot of money urgently, many women, heads of families, who were not the predominant group, which has increased the vulnerability of Venezuelan migrants.” The perspective, he adds, is that they continue to come out because the Venezuelan crisis does not yet have a horizon of improvement.
The sociologist points out that Latin America owes a historical debt to a regional policy for migration, since never before has it experienced such a large movement of people in such a short time. “Each country has its laws, which end up being incompatible with migratory rights,” says Vargas. He adds that as long as steps are not taken towards regularization and integration, as Colombia has done, where there are 1.7 million Venezuelans, informal routes, human trafficking networks and xenophobia will continue to increase, “which in many cases is fed from the official discourse”.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.