In a shelter on Mexico City’s east side, Venezuelan mechanic José Cuicas is waiting anxiously for an American friend to answer his request to sponsor him for one of the 24,000 visas the Biden administration says it will give to Venezuelans.
Cuicas was one of some 1,700 Venezuelans that U.S. authorities expelled to Mexico in the past week under a deal between the two nations to deny Venezuelans the right to U.S. asylum and try to keep them from coming to the border. Many of them were then bused to the capital to relieve pressure on Mexico’s already saturated border cities.
The new policy came in response to a significant increase in the number of Venezuelans arriving at the border. They are now second only to Mexicans among the nationalities crossing there.
Because Cuicas was expelled Oct. 13, just before the visa plan officially launched this week, he is eligible to apply for a visa under the program. Venezuelans who apply online, find a U.S. sponsor and meet other requirements could then fly directly to the U.S. if issued a visa.
On Friday, U.S. and Mexican officials gave the first update on the program: 7,500 applications were being processed and the first 100 Venezuelans had been approved to fly. Biden administration officials said about 150 Venezuelans were crossing the border from Mexico daily, down from about 1,200 before the policy was announced Oct. 12.
“My dream is to be there (the U.S.) to make a new life,” said Cuicas, a 31-year-old who left behind his wife and two young children. Returning is not an option, he said. “There is no future, there is no work.”
While Cuicas is optimistic about his chances of enrolling in the U.S. program, observers have pointed out that the number of visas offered is minuscule compared to the demand. Just in September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 33,000 encounters with Venezuelans at the border.
For Venezuelans already en route to the U.S.-Mexico border, the announcement was a shock. For some like Cuicas there was still hope of legally entering the U.S., but for others it added new uncertainty to what was a months- or even years-long migration.
In Mexico City, groups of Venezuelans circulate between shelters, a bus terminal on the city’s north side and offices of Mexico’s asylum agency, where about 30 have been sleeping in the street, waiting to start their paperwork.
Darío Arévalo found himself separated from his family for the first time in his life and living in a shelter. For reasons he said he was not given, U.S. authorities in the Texas border city of El Paso allowed six members of his family to enter, but sent him back to Mexico.
The 20-year-old is learning to live alone and thinking about returning to Venezuela, a country struggling with economic and political crises that have driven more than 7 million people out of the country.
“It is the first time I’m apart from them, that I’m alone,” he said. He will try to get enough money together to fly back to Venezuela, a place he hasn’t lived in for four years, since his family emigrated to Pereira in neighboring Colombia.
Even though Venezuela finally came out of more than four years of hyperinflation last year, it still suffers inflation that is among the highest in the world and its economy continues to be precarious. The poor have little buying power, which has stimulated another wave of migration.
The original exodus began in 2015, as thousands fled the worst political, economic and social crisis that the oil-producing country had seen in more than a century.
Before the announcement of the deal affecting Venezuelans last week, Mexico had been willing to receive only migrants from some Central American countries expelled from the U.S.
The Biden administration is expanding an authority used during the Trump administration to block migrants arriving at the border from requesting asylum, expelling them under a public health order known as Title 42 that was used during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outside Mexico’s asylum agency offices in Mexico City, Jonathan Castellanos, 29, is one of the Venezuelans who have been sleeping on the sidewalk after being expelled from the United States. He said his mother and his three children are back in Venezuela, but he has no intention of returning.
After living for six years in Chile and Colombia, he migrated north and made it to the Texas border in late September. He was expelled last week with 95 other Venezuelans.
Castellanos said Mexican authorities have already given him a humanitarian permit that will allow him to look for a job and a place to live, joining the approximately 140,000 Venezuelans now living in Mexico.
Cuicas, in contrast, said he would not apply for asylum in Mexico because he feared it would hurt his chances of getting the U.S. visa.
Castellanos said he doesn’t have time for that. “My dream is to make it to the United States, but I didn’t achieve it. … Life goes on and I can’t stop,” he said. “I have to move forward and find a way to work, to produce to help my children in Venezuela.”