(CNN) — “The news hit me like a bucket of cold water,” said Alejaidys Morey, a 30-year-old Venezuelan who, until this week, planned to start traveling to the United States.
On Wednesday, the US announced that it is expanding Title 42 — a pandemic-era border policy that allows immigration officials to expel illegal immigrants to Mexico for public health reasons — and unveiled a new program to allow some Venezuelan immigrants to apply to reach US ports of entry by air capped at 24,000.
Both plans are designed to deter Venezuelans like Morey from trying to enter illegally and dangerously overland across the US-Mexico border.
But many migrants already on the way told CNN that the Biden administration’s decision leaves them in an agonizing limbo, having given up everything to begin the journey north.
They also point out that the new airport entry program favors the wealthy and well-connected — in other words, Venezuelans who can afford to fly north in the comfort of a plane.
The Venezuelan migration crisis is more acute than ever. More than seven million Venezuelans now live abroad, according to new figures released this month by the United Nations, fleeing a humanitarian crisis in their home country.
Most live in other South American countries (there are more than two million in Colombia alone), but in recent months a growing number have begun heading north to the US via Central America and Mexico, as Living conditions deteriorate amid the covid-19 pandemic and a global food crisis.
As a result, the number of Venezuelans detained at the southern border of the United States is skyrocketing. As many as 180,000 Venezuelans crossed the border in the past year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
A disqualifying route
Panama and Mexico form a geographic passageway for overland travelers from South America. Under the new US immigration provision, any migrant heading north and entering Panama or Mexico illegally will not be eligible for the program.
The trip planned by Morey, her husband Rodolfo and their three children would have been just that. Her goal was to first travel to the city of Necoclí in Colombia and then walk to Panama through the Darién Gap, a 100-kilometer stretch of jungle that is impassable by road.
Despite the myriad dangers, 150,000 migrants have crossed on foot so far this year, according to Panamanian authorities.
Morey, who is currently in Colombia, says a return to Venezuela is impossible. In 2018, his family sold his house in Santa Teresa del Tuy, an impoverished town about 30 kilometers southeast of Caracas, for $1,500 to pay for the trip to Colombia.
Now, she feels that she has been thrown into limbo. Like so many others, she can’t afford a transcontinental flight, much less for her entire family.
“In these circumstances I have nowhere to go… I’m scared: what can I do?” Morey told CNN.
Their situation is the norm for most migrants currently traveling north.
“After so much pain, after so many obstacles that we had to overcome, now we are stuck. We are in Necoclí and we have nowhere to go…” a Venezuelan migrant who asked to be identified only as José told CNN.
According to local authorities, up to 10,000 migrants are waiting in the city to cross the bay to the Darién Gap, but some are now reconsidering their next move.
“I’m in pain, I don’t know what to do now,” says Ender Dairen, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who was planning to join a group traveling to northern Ecuador. But his plans changed after talking to other immigrants online.
“A couple of friends are thinking of settling down wherever they are, somewhere between Costa Rica and Nicaragua,” he told CNN. “Every person you talk to says the same thing: the whole route collapsed; We can’t travel anymore.”
A “cruel” policy
In a call with reporters Thursday, top Homeland Security official Blas Nuñez-Neto said the goal is to reduce the number of migrants illegally approaching the US southern border while, at the same time, create a legal pathway for those eligible.
But the plan drew rare criticism from members of the Venezuelan opposition, who are generally aligned with Washington in its fight against Venezuela’s authoritarian leader, Nicolás Maduro.
“The US government announced a cruel immigration measure, which makes the situation of thousands of Venezuelans more painful,” tweeted Henrique Caprilesa two-time presidential candidate and one of the few anti-Maduro leaders still living in Caracas.
Carlos Vecchio, the official Venezuelan opposition representative in Washington, also tweeted that the plan is “insufficient for the magnitude” of Venezuela’s migration crisis.
“We recognize the efforts of @POTUS to seek alternatives to the migration crisis through the Humanitarian Parole, for an orderly and safe migration of Venezuelans”, said.
“But the 24,000 visas announced are insufficient for the magnitude of the problem. A reconsideration is necessary in this regard,” he added.
The Venezuelan government has not commented on the new US policy.
But humanitarian organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have echoed the criticism of others that 24,000 legal permits are not enough, and insist that others should not be allowed to be deported to Mexico under Title 42.
“We are shocked by the Biden administration’s decision to begin expelling Venezuelans under Title 42, a cruel and inhumane policy that has no basis to safeguard public health and should have ended long ago,” said Avril Benoit, Executive Director of MSF in a statement. .
“While we welcome the launch of a special humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans, ensuring safe passages to the US should be the norm rather than the exception.”
Rights activists argue that asylum seekers should have a chance to present their cases in the United States before being returned.
Still, some immigrants say they see a ray of hope in the Biden administration’s new stance.
Oscar Chacín, 44, a boxing instructor who had entertained the idea of traveling to the US via Central America for weeks, told CNN that he now sees a legal path to migration.
“For me, it’s actually better. This will make things worse for a lot of people, but for me it’s good,” she said. “I have relatives in America, some friends and some boxing alumni, some of them will be able to sponsor me and my family.”
His son, Oscar Alexander, is already in Mexico and entered before the new US immigration rules were announced.
“He will stay there, now. He is already looking for work and we will present the documentation as soon as we find the sponsor, ”said Chacín.
“Then we will wait for the paperwork. Maybe one, maybe two years, but we’ll make it, I’m sure!