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 Thursday, 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 thousands of Venezuelans who had previously arrived to the U.S., they must have entered the country before July 31 of this year to be eligible for temporary protected status.
In making the recent expansion of protections official, President Joe Biden’s administration said just this week that it had determined that “extraordinary and temporary conditions continue to prevent Venezuelan nationals from returning in safety.”
Mayorkas on Thursday addressed the contrast with the announcement just days later of more deportations, 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 Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service criticized the move to resume deportations noting the apparent contradiction with the expansion of temporary protected status.
“Returning thousands of Venezuelans to the same unimaginably dangerous conditions they just fled is a profoundly problematic policy for the world’s humanitarian leader to adopt,” the organization’s CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah said in a statement.
Administration 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 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 on security issues.
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.
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.
Venezuelans were stopped 25,777 times the first 17 days of September, up 63% from the same period a month earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released by López Obrador. 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. and Mexican officials also discussed efforts aimed at combating the trafficking of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Mexican officials continued to explain with some difficulty López Obrador’s blanket assertion — false according to available evidence and the U.S. government — that Mexico does not produce fentanyl.
Bárcena, the foreign relations secretary, said “there is no contradiction, chemical precursors are not produced in Mexico.” It was tacit admission that Mexican cartels import precursors, mainly from China, and process them chemically into fentanyl. But since the entire chemical process is not carried out in Mexico the government maintains that fentanyl is not produced here.
U.S. officials highlighted the recent extradition of Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of former Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges as a sign of cooperation between the two governments.
Balsamo and Long reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Washington and Fabiola Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.