By MARKO ÁLVAREZ and ASTRID SUÁREZ | Associated Press
NECOCLI, Colombia — Venezuelan Gilbert Fernández still plans to cross the dangerous Darien jungle into Panama and head toward the United States over land, despite a U.S. announcement that it will grant conditional humanitarian permits only to 24,000 Venezuelan migrants arriving by air.
“The news hit us like a bucket of cold water,” Fernández said Thursday, a day after the announcement, which also stated that Venezuelans arriving by land at the Mexico-U.S. border would be returned to Mexico.
Fernández spoke to The Associated Press on a beach in Necocli, a Colombian town where about 9,000 people, mostly Venezuelans, waited to board a boat to take them to the entrance of the Darien Gap connecting the South American country to Panama. From there, migrants head by land up Central America through Mexico toward the U.S.
Some on the Colombian beach said they would seek other routes into the United States or give up the voyage after hearing the news. Critics noted that the announced number of humanitarian visas is just a fraction of the number of Venezuelans seeking to enter the United States.
But for Fernández it was too late to turn back. He said he sold his car and his land in Venezuela to finance the trip with his 18-year-old son and his friends, and he no longer has money for a plane ticket to the U.S.
“Those of us who have already started, how are we going to do that?” he wondered. “We are already involved in this.”
The U.S. and Mexico said Wednesday that the Biden administration agreed to accept up to 24,000 Venezuelan migrants at U.S. airports while Mexico agreed to take back Venezuelans who come to the U.S. over land.
Venezuelans who walk or swim across the border will be immediately returned to Mexico under a pandemic rule known as Title 42 authority, which suspends rights to seek asylum under U.S. and international law on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The U.S. offer to the Venezuelans is modeled on a similar program for Ukrainians who fled Russia’s invasion.
The moves are a response to a dramatic increase in migration from Venezuela, which surpassed Guatemala and Honduras in August to become the second largest nationality arriving at the U.S. border after Mexico.
So far in 2022, more than 151,000 people have crossed into Panama through the jungle, the majority — 107,600 — Venezuelans. That already exceeds the 133,000 people who crossed in the previous year, according to official Panamanian figures. The trip through the inhospitable jungle is fraught with dangers, including thieves, human traffickers and the possibility of sexual assault. Armed groups operate in the region.
Arrests of Venezuelans at the U.S. border also have increased. Authorities detained Venezuelans 25,349 times in August, making them the second most detained nationality at the border, after Mexicans.
For some, the offer of 24,000 humanitarian visas is not enough given the dimensions of Venezuela’s migration situation, and many consider the conditions on those visas too difficult.
María Clara Robayo, an investigator for the Venezuelan Observatory at Colombia’s Del Rosario University, said the flow of migrants through the Darien Gap might be reduced a bit but won’t stop.
“People will continue exposing themselves to precarious situations” crossing the jungle, she said.
Jeremy Villegas arrived in Necocli in a group of 30 people, most of whom are turning back or looking for other routes. He said he is still undecided and is waiting to hear from people who are farther along the route to know if it is worth the risk.
Cristian Casamayor said he has decided to stop his journey through the Darien after hearing of the new U.S. policy.
“I stopped out of awareness and being smart … they mark your passport and you can no longer enter the United States,” he said, adding that he has not decided where he will go now. All he knows is that he will not return to Venezuela.
Mario Ricardo Camejo, a member of the nonprofit Colombian-Venezuelan foundation Fundacolven, said that while they appreciate any help and humanitarian visas from countries like the U.S., they worry the help comes with conditions that make it difficult on the poorest migrants. For example, having to arrive by plane and having a financial sponsor.
“Automatically, a filter is created that ensures the help does not reach the people who need it most,” Camejo said.
Of the more than 7.1 million Venezuelans who have left their country due to the social and economic crisis, at least 4.3 million have difficulties accessing food, housing and formal employment, according to a report released Wednesday by the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
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Venezuelans back in that country’s capital agreed the new rules will hurt.
“The people who leave by land have no money, no visa, no family there” in the United States, José Santana said in Caracas’ central plaza. “It is useless for them to say that they are going to let many enter by plane.”