Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 562, 20 October 2022

The US: Biden administration and the Venezuelan migrants
Sejal Sharma

In the news 

On 12 October, the Biden administration expanded the Title 42 policy to include the increasing number of Venezuelan asylum seekers on its southern borders. The new approach provides for the expulsion of Venezuelans who walk or swim across the US southern border and deems any Venezuelan illegally entering Mexico or Panama ineligible to come to the US. However, 24,000 refugee seekers will be accepted at US airports.

On 19 October, the Mexico Chief of Mission of the International Organization for Migration, expressed concerns over the US plan pointing to shelters that were already overcrowded with people, including pregnant women and single mothers. 

Issues at large

First, an increase in migrants. The move is a response to the upsurge in migration from Venezuela, which has surpassed the numbers from Guatemala and Honduras in August to become the second largest nationality arriving at the US border after Mexico. At least 153,000 Venezuelans were apprehended between October 2021 to August 2022; the Department of Homeland Security’s release revealed that 33,000 more Venezuelans arrived at the border in September.

Second, the failure of Title 42. An estimated 7.1 million Venezuelans have fled their country owing to the economic crisis and political instability in the region in recent years. Title 42, originally aimed at restricting entry for those from countries which have witnessed a recent outbreak of communicable disease, has been used as a tool to stem the influx of immigrants.  As entry to the US from land remains restricted, migrants take dangerous routes like the Darien Gap in Panama. The policy has been termed discriminatory and counterproductive as the right to assess asylum applications should be the task of border security authorities of respective host countries and is not determined by the US refugee and immigration laws. Furthermore, the use of Title 42 has spurred repeated crossings at the border, inflated border crossing statistics, and benefited cartels.

Second, grave human rights violations. Earlier in October, a Panama government report said at least 48,000 moved through the Darien Gap in September; 80 per cent were Venezuelans and almost 15 per cent of them were children and adolescents repeatedly exposed to dangers of drowning, disease, animal attacks, or assault from criminal groups. The Human Rights First group tracked at least 10,300 reports of murder, kidnapping, rape, and other violent attacks against migrants expelled to Mexico due to Title 42 since last year. Expulsions increasingly target people who are black, brown, and indigenous and facilitate extortion by cartels monetizing on such border policies. 

Third, the greater role of armed forces in Mexico. Attorney-General Alejandro Gertz Manero accorded additional powers to Mexico’s National Guard personnel to inspect and detain undocumented migrants without the presence of the National Migration Institute, raising alarm amongst human rights groups. With the military provided power to apprehend migrants without any civilian involvement, the migration crisis is bound to increase.

Fourth, upcoming midterm elections. As the US midterm elections approach, immigration remains one of the most contentious political issues, especially at the southwestern border. With the expansion of the Title 42 policy, the Biden administration expects that establishing legal ways for migrants’ entry would have a positive impact. However, Republicans continue to criticise the move. Governor Greg Abbot from Texas, running for re-election, introduced Operation Lone Star in September 2021 in retaliation to the Democrats’ immigration policies which he deemed inefficient. As the elections approach, the Operation has moved arrested and detained migrants to Democrat-governed cities; it has also led to an increase in far-right sentiments and cases of violence against migrants. 

In perspective

First, extending the remit of an outdated policy is an evasive move instead of addressing the long-term causes of the migrant crisis. The provisions introduced are not in tandem with the magnitude of the crisis and are bound to favour only a marginal fraction of asylum seekers. The prerequisites for being eligible for asylum include having a financial sponsor in the US and going through a rigorous vetting process before entering the US by air. With most asylum seekers coming from impoverished backgrounds, the new policy favours only the well-connected and resourceful migrants leaving a major chunk of refugees in limbo. 

Second, the US’ strained diplomatic relations with Venezuela have made it nearly impossible for it to send the migrants back to Venezuela and increasing the burden on Mexico to host the refugees. The cap on the number of migrants that the US will take is bound to overburden Mexican shelters, and the numbers are likely to increase due to increasing recession and instability in Venezuela. Furthermore, the border crisis is also causing disorder at the Mexican border, affecting the law-and-order situation, especially with the involvement of cartels and criminal groups. The US policy hinges on the independent and parallel participation of Mexico and the increasing burden could strain bilateral relations with Mexico in the future.

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