MEXICO CITY (AP) — The Biden administration will resume deporting Venezuelan migrants, the largest single group encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border last month, back to their economically troubled country as their arrivals continue to grow.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, speaking in Mexico City, cited the new measure as one of the “strict consequences” the Biden administration is pairing with the expansion of legal pathways for asylum seekers.
“Our two countries are being challenged by an unprecedented level of migration throughout our hemisphere,” Mayorkas said, referring to Mexico.
The repatriation flights are expected to begin shortly, said two U.S. officials, though they did not provide specific details on when the flights would begin taking off. The officials were not authorized to disclose details of the government’s plan and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The resumption of deportation flights comes not long after the administration increased protected status for Venezuelans who arrive to the U.S., so if someone arrived to the U.S. before July 31 of this year, but not after, they’d be eligible for protections. The decision reflects the larger strategy by President Joe Biden to not only provide expanded legal pathways for people arriving, but also to crack down on those who illegally cross into the country from Mexico.
The decision to resume deportation flights to Venezuela contrasts with the recent U.S. announcement that Venezuelans already in the country are eligible for expanded temporary protected status. To justify that expansion the Biden administration said it had determined that it was warranted “because extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety.”
Mayorkas addressed that contrast, saying “we have made a determination it is safe to return Venezuelan nationals who arrived in the United States subsequent to July 31 and do not have a legal basis to remain here.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who led a U.S. delegation to Mexico, added that “we have an ironclad commitment to provide protection for those who qualify. That remains paramount in everything we’re doing.”
The officials would not discuss details about how frequently deportation flights would be going to Venezuela or describe how Venezuela agreed to accept back their citizens except to say that, like other countries around the world, the U.S. has long encouraged Venezuela to accept back its nationals. Cuba, another U.S. adversary, announced earlier this year that it would begin accepting Cuban deportees but there has only been one flight a month.
The U.S. had been returning some Venezuelans via commercial flights, but in relatively small numbers and through third countries.
In Venezuela, the government said it had reached an agreement with U.S. officials for a safe and orderly repatriation.
“Venezuelan migration in recent years is a direct result of the application of unilateral coercive measures and a blockade of our economy,” Venezuela’s foreign ministry said via X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. It said the government would deploy a program to support repatriated Venezuelans.
The U.S. move is the latest effort to deal with swelling numbers of migrants as the administration comes under increasing pressure from Republicans and mayors from the president’s own party to do more to slow arrivals.
The announcement came as Blinken and other top Biden administration officials met with their counterparts in Mexico City.
Blinken discussed migration flows with Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Alicia Bárcena, as well as foreign ministers from Panama and Colombia, Wednesday. Talks continued Thursday, including meetings by Blinken and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland with López Obrador.
Bárcena said Thursday that some 10,000 migrant encounters were registered at the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday.
“We are going to continue taking forceful actions, including continuing some efforts we already have in relation to assisted returns, coordinating the dismantling of trafficking networks and human trafficking,” Bárcena said.
Blinken said the U.S. government is working to support those efforts.
“We’re taking steps to aid the most vulnerable, those most vulnerable to organized crime, training nearly 200 Mexican immigration officials to better screen, identify and assist potential human trafficking victims,” Blinken said.
“The scale of this challenge demands that we redouble our efforts, that we do more to increase legal migration … more to address root causes and more to deter irregular migration humanely,” Blinken said.
López Obrador said Thursday during his daily news briefing that Mexico has reiterated in talks its position that there should be investment to spur development in the countries that migrants leave.
“The people don’t abandon their towns because they want to, but rather out of necessity,” the president said. He also criticized the Biden administration’s announcement Wednesday that it waived 26 federal laws in South Texas to allow border wall construction. López Obrador had previously praised Biden for not building more border wall during his presidency.
Blinken and other top American officials are visiting Mexico to discuss shared security issues, foremost among them trafficking of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, but also arms trafficking and increasing migration.
In August, the U.S. Border Patrol made 181,509 arrests at the Mexican border, up 37% from July but little changed from August 2022 and well below the more than 220,000 in December, according to figures released in September.
The U.S. has tried to get Mexico and countries farther south to do more. In April, the U.S., Panama and Colombia announced a campaign to slow migration through the treacherous Darien Gap dividing Colombia and Panama. But migration through the jungle has only accelerated and is expected to approach some 500,000 people this year – the vast majority from Venezuela.
More Venezuelans were encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border last month than nationals of any other country except Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released by López Obrador.
Venezuelans were stopped 25,777 times the first 17 days of September, up 63% from the same period a month earlier. Those included some people admitted for scheduled asylum appointments, but the vast majority were illegal entries.
Venezuela plunged into a political, economic and humanitarian crisis over the last 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.
Deportation flights had been paused in part because the U.S. has few diplomatic relations with the nation. U.S. officials would not say how Venezuela agreed to accept back their citizens except to say that, like other countries around the world, the U.S. has long encouraged Venezuela to take back its nationals.
The U.S. announcement resuming deportation flights “makes clear that we are committed to strictly enforcing immigration laws and quickly removing individuals who do not avail themselves of these orderly processes and choose to cross our border unlawfully,” Homeland Security said in a statement.
Balsamo and Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Washington and Fabiola Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.