(Washington, DC, October 21, 2022) – The decision by United States President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to expand abusive Title 42 deportation policies and expel Venezuelans to Mexico without allowing them to reside in Seeking asylum in the US puts lives at risk and violates international law, Human Rights Watch said today. The parallel announcement of a new program allowing some Venezuelans to enter the US by air comes with restrictions that mean many asylum seekers are left without protection.
On October 12, 2022, the US and Mexican governments announced a new migration enforcement process for Venezuelans “to reduce the number of people arriving” at the US border. Under the policy, which went into effect on October 13, all Venezuelans who cross the U.S.-Mexico border irregularly will be deported to Mexico without an opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S. As of October 18, 4,050 Venezuelans had been turned back.
“A new legal avenue for some Venezuelans seeking safety in the US will not cover up the likely harm many others will suffer from this massive expansion of abusive Trump-era Title 42 deportation policies,” said Tyler Mattiace, Mexico Researchers at Human Rights Watch. “With this decision, Biden is effectively punishing those Venezuelans who were forced to leave their country on foot, denying them the right to seek asylum, and seeking to overlay this abusive policy with a humanitarian probation program that will benefit only a few.”
Prior to October 13, neither the US nor Mexico had expelled most Venezuelans because Venezuela often refuses to accept deportation flights. Venezuelans have been deported to Mexico in recent days Visas that are only valid for a few days or receive documents from Mexican authorities directing them to exit the country across the Mexico-Guatemalan border. The documents do not allow them to stay in Mexico or access public services such as health care or education. Human Rights Watch asked officials from Mexico’s National Migration Institute and the Ministry of Foreign Relations about the legal status of the expelled Venezuelans, but as of October 21 had received no response.
Title 42 has barred hundreds of thousands of Haitians, Africans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and people of many other nationalities from claiming fair asylum procedures in the United States since March 2020, in violation of US and international law.
The US and Mexican governments also announced a new program, beginning Oct. 18, that would allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans who meet certain requirements to apply for a permit to enter the US by air. To qualify, Venezuelans must hold a valid passport and have a US-based sponsor who agrees to provide housing and financial support. Venezuelans who entered the United States, Mexico or Panama irregularly after October 18 are not eligible.
These requirements are often difficult to meet. Many Venezuelans face administrative and economic obstacles when it comes to obtaining or renewing passports or other official documents — including marriage and birth certificates — as Venezuelan consular services are scarce and unaffordable. Requiring asylum seekers to present a passport to the government, which may persecute them, is fundamentally at odds with the reality for many refugees, Human Rights Watch said.
The Biden administration should restore the right to asylum for everyone arriving at the US-Mexico border, regardless of nationality, financial means, family ties, or travel documents. And the US should eliminate passport requirements, which will make it impossible for many Venezuelans to apply for the new program.
Biden administration officials have compared the program for Venezuelans to the Uniting for Ukraine, launched in April, which allows Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion to apply for entry into the United States. However, the US has not banned Ukrainians from seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border and in March exempted Ukrainians from deportation to Mexico under its Title 42 policy.
The number of Venezuelans traveling to the US border has increased in recent years as the country faces a crackdown on dissidents and a humanitarian emergency that has left millions without access to basic health care, adequate food and clean water to have. Over 7 million people have fled Venezuela since 2014. US officials arrested more than 200,000 Venezuelans at the US-Mexico border between January 2021 and August 2022.
US officials have relied heavily on Mexico, Guatemala and other regional governments to block migrants and asylum-seekers of other nationalities from traveling north to reach the US border, leading many to take more dangerous routes.
After Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize introduced new visa requirements for Venezuelans that made it more difficult for them to travel north by plane, the number of people crossing the dangerous Darien Gap on the Colombia-Panama border skyrocketed. More than 107,000 Venezuelans crossed the Darien Gap between January and September 2022, compared to about 1,500 for the same period in 2021. In May, Human Rights Watch traveled to the Darien Gap and documented gross abuses by criminals against migrants who rarely access it have health, protection or justice.
The Title 42 border deportation policy has effectively closed US ports of entry to nearly all asylum seekers since it was implemented by former US President Donald Trump in March 2020 under the guise of a pandemic response measure. Public health officials have since said the approach was “the abuse of a public health agency” and politically motivated.
The directive allows US immigration officials to refuse asylum applications at official border crossings and to expel anyone crossing the border irregularly without allowing them to seek asylum in the US. It has been used more than 2.2 million times to deport migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico or their home countries.
The Biden administration had announced plans to end the deportation policy in April after using it for more than a year to deport people more than twice as often as the Trump administration, but several US states fought the move before one Federal court, resulting in orders to uphold the policy during the litigation. Since then, the Biden administration has expanded its use of Title 42, and officials have reportedly said they intend to find other ways to expel asylum seekers should they no longer be able to abuse the health agency to do so.
As Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented, criminal groups and Mexican officials often target migrants and asylum-seekers who have been deported to Mexico by the US for abuses such as kidnapping, extortion and rape. According to the organization Human Rights First, which tracks such cases, there have been at least 6,000 documented cases of kidnappings or other violent attacks on people who were brought back to Mexico from the United States.
The Mexican government should refuse to accept deportations, including those of Venezuelans and especially those at greater risk such as LGBT people and those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, Human Rights Watch said. It should also give legal status to all Venezuelans expelled from the US to ensure they have access to basic services.
The right to asylum is a core principle of international human rights law and is enshrined in US law. Anyone seeking international protection has the right to apply for asylum abroad and have their case heard by the competent authorities. Expelling asylum seekers without giving them the opportunity to assert their claims violates this refugee Convention, the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Biden and López Obrador should work together to create humane, just, and rights-respecting immigration and asylum systems, rather than limiting the right to asylum based on race, nationality, financial resources, or family ties,” said Ari Sawyer, US frontiers researcher at Human Rights Watch.