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US begins quietly flying Venezuelan migrants to Colombia under controversial border policy

<i>Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</i><br/>The Biden administration begins quietly flying Venezuelan migrants to Colombia. Pictured is a group of Venezuelan migrants gathered at the immigrant aid center in Sibate
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Juancho Torres/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Biden administration begins quietly flying Venezuelan migrants to Colombia. Pictured is a group of Venezuelan migrants gathered at the immigrant aid center in Sibate

By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

The Biden administration, unable to return an increasing number of Venezuelans arrested at the US-Mexico border to their home country, is now sending those migrants to Colombia if they previously resided there, according to two Homeland Security officials.

White House officials have grown increasingly concerned about the large numbers of single adults continuing to cross the US southern border, particularly from countries that Mexico won’t accept under a controversial Trump-era policy, two sources familiar with discussions said.

The flights of Venezuelans to Colombia, which have not been previously reported, marks another effort by the administration to try to stem the flow of migrants, pushing those who arrive further away from the US-Mexico border including those seeking asylum.

In December, US Customs and Border Protection encountered more than 13,000 single adults from Venezuela on the US southern border, compared with 96 in December 2020, according to agency data.

A humanitarian crisis and political instability have taken hold of Venezuela in recent years. Around 6 million people have fled the country, according to the United Nations, usually fleeing to other parts of Latin America which have also struggled during the pandemic.

There’s been bipartisan acknowledgment of the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. Last year, Sens. Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat, introduced a Senate resolution expressing alarm over the situation in the country.

Colombia also granted temporary legal status to Venezuelans who had fled there, allowing them to legally work in the country. But for those who opted to journey to the US-Mexico border to seek protections in the US, expulsion to Colombia now puts them thousands of miles away from the possibility of claiming asylum in the US.

The handling of the US-Mexico border has dogged the Biden administration since the early days of Joe Biden’s presidency as a growing number of migrants journey to the United States, fleeing deteriorating conditions in the western hemisphere. Republicans have recently seized on the releases of migrants — some of whom can’t be expelled because of their nationality — citing it as another example of what they describe as the administration’s poor management of the border.

Under a public health authority, known as Title 42, authorities can swiftly remove migrants encountered at the US southern border, effectively barring those seeking asylum from doing so and marking an unprecedented departure from previous protocol. The authority was invoked at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, despite suspicions among officials that it was politically motivated.

The White House has repeatedly referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the future of the policy, saying the agency deems it necessary given the Delta and Omicron variants.

Last Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security returned two Venezuelan nationals to Colombia, where they had previously resided, the department told CNN, adding that flights to Colombia are expected to take place “on a regular basis.”

“As part of the United States COVID-19 mitigation efforts, DHS continues to enforce CDC’s Title 42 public health authority with all individuals encountered at the Southwest border. However, DHS’s ability to expel individuals may be limited for several reasons, including Mexico’s ability and capacity to receive individuals of certain nationalities,” DHS said in a statement, adding that the department has removed migrants to third countries in the region where they had lived or had status.

DHS has also acknowledged the precarious situation in Venezuela by granting a form of humanitarian relief for Venezuelans already in the United States.

Still, the Biden administration has continued to rely on the public health authority and recently defended it in court — a move that received criticism from immigrant advocates and Democratic lawmakers. The latest decision to expel migrants from Venezuela — a country in crisis — to Colombia reveals a further dependence on the public health authority amid a growing number of Venezuelans arriving at the US-Mexico border.

In December, US Customs and Border Protection encountered 24,819 Venezuelans at the US southern border including single adults, families and minors, up from the previous month and continuing an increasing trend. As a point of comparison, in December 2020, CBP encountered only around 200 Venezuelan migrants, according to agency data.

While tens of thousands of migrants have been turned away at the US-Mexico border, some, like South Americans, aren’t accepted by Mexico and therefore those nationals largely can’t be expelled. Under the public health authority, DHS has removed migrants to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil.

Some migrants from Venezuela crossed the border in Yuma, Arizona — often flying to an airport in Mexico and then crossing at a gap along the Colorado River, cutting the journey down to just days. It’s the most viable option for many Venezuelans and Brazilians, for example, who can’t obtain a visa that allows them to work in the US — or can’t afford the years-long wait for the legal immigration process. Mexico recently put new visa restrictions in place for Venezuelans traveling to Mexico.

The US has previously taken measures to try to lower the number of migrants at the US-Mexico border. Last year, the administration started flying migrants apprehended at the southern border and subject to the Trump-era border policy linked to the pandemic to the interior of Mexico.

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