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Venezuelan migrants at Juárez encampment prepared to wait out US border policy

With over 1,500 Venezuelan migrants camped out on the Rio Grande opposite El Paso, and more arriving each day, experts fear a migrant crisis brewing on the U.S.-Mexico border.

JUÁREZ, Mexico (CN) — Jesús Montoya stretched out on his stomach at the very edge of this place that calls the river the Río Bravo. Propped up on his elbows, he looked out of the tent facing the country that calls it the Rio Grande and smiled.

“I’m happy,” said Montoya, 39, who exuded positivity despite the uncertainty besetting him. “I never thought I’d make it here. Just getting here is a dream, a success.”

Behind him lay over 3,000 miles fraught with dangers: the swift currents and deadly caprice of the rivers of the Darién Gap, the brutality of police and immigration forces, the elements and organized crime. Back there were also the $2,600 he spent to get here and the family he left in Venezuela: his mother, father, brother and three children aged 5, 12 and 14. 

Despite its names, the Rio Grande is neither big nor fierce. Here it is low enough for migrants from other countries to wade across in order to turn themselves into U.S. immigration authorities on the other side. 

It is not the river that stops the more than 1,500 Venezuelan migrants camped out on its banks from entering the United States, but rather the recent change in policy concerning citizens of the pariah state whose economy has been decimated largely thanks to U.S. sanctions. 

Hundreds of tents set up by Venezuelan migrants line the southern banks of the Rio Grande in Juárez, Mexico, on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

For Montoya and hundreds of others camped out by the river, the legal pathway for some 24,000 Venezuelans via the new humanitarian parole program implemented in October is out of reach. The program presents a sufficient number of hurdles to nullify their eligibility. They must be sponsored by a citizen or permanent resident of the United States, have a valid passport and not hold refugee status in another country, among other requirements. They must also enter via air on a flight purchased with their own funds.

The migrants at the encampment who spoke to Courthouse News had met one or some of the requirements, but not all, making them ineligible for the program. Over 6,800 Venezuelans have been approved to enter the United States through the program as of Oct. 31, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

A DHS spokesperson told Courthouse News that “initial data shows that when there is a lawful and orderly way, people are less inclined to put lives in the hands of smugglers.” 

None of the Venezuelan migrants interviewed said they had plans to hire the services of a smuggler, but it was not because of the humanitarian parole program. Rather, they did not have the money to pay a coyote, or smuggler. That service goes for as much as $8,000 these days, and most here lacked the funds even to feed themselves. 

So now, they wait. And hope. 

“We still don’t know what’s going to happen to us here,” said Montoya. “In the meantime, I’ll behave myself, and I think hard-hearted people will soften up a bit and maybe they’ll give us the opportunity to cross.”

Migrants wait in line for food donations at the encampment in Juárez, Mexico, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

However, there is no telling how long they could be left waiting for such a development, and nighttime lows in Juárez are beginning to flirt with freezing. 

“I don’t think the Biden administration is going to go back to allowing Venezuelans to seek asylum,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel and border issues specialist at the American Immigration Council.

While many migrants said their faith in God was the basis for their hope, most also cited a mistaken belief that President Biden had previously invited Venezuelans to come apply for asylum at the border. 

“We came like this because it’s what the president told us to do,” said José Raga, a 38-year-old father of three who was in southern Mexico when he heard the news of the policy change in October. “We sold everything, the cars, the house, the fridge, the TV.” 

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This erroneous belief is likely due to the circulation of misinformation among migrant communities, said Reichlin-Melnick. This misinformation can originate with smugglers trying to drum up business or even mainstream media outlets.

“Fox News has spent the last two years saying that President Biden opened the borders,” he said. “None of that is true, yet is it widely believed among millions of people.”

Before the implementation of the humanitarian parole program in October, both Mexico and Venezuela refused to accept expelled Venezuelan migrants, meaning U.S. authorities had to process their asylum claims at the border. This may have been misinterpreted as a welcome mat for Venezuelans looking to escape the deprivations of their country’s destroyed economy.

“Biden is the one who opened the border to us. He’s got to give us notice,” said Pedro González, 26, who said he was already in U.S. custody when the policy change was announced. He turned himself in on Oct. 8 and was held until the 12th, when he was expelled under Title 42, the once obscure health code that has been used over 2.3 million times to expel migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

Residents of Juárez donate burritos and gorditas to hungry migrants at the encampment at the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

With the policy change so fresh, many Venezuelan migrants are still unaware of what is likely their last option for entering the United States: a Title 42 exemption based on vulnerability. 

“That can mean anything: medical, it can mean violence, it can mean individuals who may have faced some sort of trauma or incident on the way to the border,” said Nicolas Palazzo, an attorney with the El Paso-based migrant advocacy organization Las Americas.

Palazzo said Las Americas is currently processing around 30 exemptions per day, but that very few of these are Venezuelans. 

Some, like Jesús Montoya, decided to stay and work in Mexico while they wait and hope that U.S. border policy will soon swing back in their favor. He obtained a work permit for Mexico and was hoping to start a job at a nearby pizzeria soon.

Others have given up on the American dream altogether and returned to Venezuela. Mexican immigration officials have been visiting the encampment to provide information about free flights to Caracas offered to migrants by the Mexican government and Venezuela’s state-owned airline Conviasa. 

Around 1,300 Venezuelans have taken advantage of this option since the policy change, according to Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM).

Only one migrant from the encampment said he wanted to return to Venezuela. However, during his two months on the road, Gabriel Aldana had received so much mistreatment from authorities in several countries that he did not trust the INM to take him back home. 

“It’s a lie, everything immigration says is a lie,” said Aldana, 35, as he sold gum outside the Paso del Norte international bridge in Juárez. “I don’t believe anything the government says.”

Tents pitched on the southern banks of the Rio Grande river compose an encampment of more than 1,500 migrants primarily from Venezuela, but also from Honduras and other Central American countries, on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

With so many Venezuelan migrants willing to wait out the next whim in U.S. border politics at the country’s doorstep, it certainly appears as though another migrant crisis may be brewing on the southern banks of the Rio Grande.

“That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?” said Reichlin-Melnick, of the American Immigration Council. “What is the long-term effect of this? For those who are already on the way here, a lot of them had already made the decision to come here, they’d gotten rid of their personal effects at home, they paid to find a way here, and for many of those people, turning around and going back doesn’t really seem like a practical option.”

Palazzo, of Las Americas, described the humanitarian parole program as little more than political can-kicking by outsourcing the problem to another country.

“It very much plays into the idea of out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “They need to make it more palatable for the American public, so rather than have people camped in the streets of El Paso, they’re now camped on the other side of the borer. This is not a long-term solution.”

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