El Paso struggles to keep up with Venezuelan migrants: 5 key things to know

Border authorities continued to release migrants near the Greyhound bus station Downtown on Wednesday, as the number of Venezuelans and others arriving outpaced the ability of El Paso area shelters to temporarily house them.

City residents have donated water bottles, foil-wrapped burritos, clothes, cereal boxes, coolers, blankets and other necessities to the migrants — many of whom are only waiting for a sponsor to purchase a ticket out of town, or for the Border Patrol to release another loved one from custody.

A U.S. Border Patrol spokesman in El Paso said the agency has released about 1,000 people in the past week directly to the street but also is working with area shelters that can provide assistance to those with lawful claims, as well as with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain some of the migrants. Those released to the street have been granted provisional status while they await the next step in their immigration proceedings.

Venezuelans have been fleeing political oppression and severe economic hardship in their country for years, but the exodus has intensified in 2022.

In the first 10 months of fiscal 2022, CBP encountered or apprehended more than 130,000 Venezuelan nationals, up from more than 50,000 Venezuelans encountered or apprehended in fiscal 2021. The majority are turning themselves in to Border Patrol; some are asking for asylum in the U.S.

Venezuelans crossed the Texas border in the Del Rio area in large numbers for months, but their migration pattern has recently shifted to El Paso, where Border Patrol says agents have processed an average of 660 Venezuelans per day.

Here are a few things to know about Venezuelan migration:

Why are people fleeing Venezuela?

Rich with crude oil, Venezuela was once one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America and a magnet for migrants from the region and beyond. It was also a country of deep social and economic inequality, and those conditions helped usher in socialist President Hugo Chávez.

Before his death in 2013, Chávez spent more than a decade redistributing Venezuela's oil wealth with myriad social programs, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But he also destabilized the economy by nationalizing private companies. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, continued on his predecessor's authoritarian path and disastrous economic policies.

On Wednesday, 38-year-old Venezuelan Joselín Cuicas said she left after inflation got so high that the bolívares she earned as a preschool teacher didn't amount to more than $20 per month. She could barely afford food; she and her daughter were down to one meal a day, she said.

Years ago, "there was gasoline; you could have whatever car you wanted, whatever clothes you wanted, " she said, sitting on a pile of blankets by the Greyhound station. "We had our little house. Now it's worth nothing. The car is worth nothing."

More:Venezuelan migration overwhelming area shelters; families sleeping on El Paso streets

The U.S. granted Venezuelans "temporary protected status," or TPS, because of factors that prevented their safe return to their country, including, "severe economic and political crises ongoing within Venezuela, which have an impact across sectors, including limited access to food, basic services and adequate health care, and the deterioration of the rule of law and protection of human rights."

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas extended TPS in July for Venezuelan migrants present in the U.S. before March 9, 2021. TPS isn't available to those who have crossed the border since.

Why aren't other countries helping?

Actually, they are. More than 6 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela in the past decade.

This graphic shows the number of Venezuelans taken in by other countries in Latin America — especially Colombia and Peru.

More than 1.8 million Venezuelans were living in Colombia at the end of last year, while another 1.3 million were living in Peru.

Some Venezuelan migrants in El Paso told the El Paso Times they faced discrimination in Colombia and Peru and returned to Venezuela only to be labeled "traitors to the homeland" for having left in the first place.

The U.S. also is helping other countries help Venezuelans. During a June Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the U.S. pledged $314 million of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration for humanitarian and development assistance for refugees and vulnerable migrants across the hemisphere, including humanitarian aid for Venezuelans in 17 countries in the region.

A Catholic nun arrives at the Annunciation House's Casa del Refugiado on Aug. 1. The shelter was preparing to close its doors in early August.
A Catholic nun arrives at the Annunciation House's Casa del Refugiado on Aug. 1. The shelter was preparing to close its doors in early August.

Is the Title 42 policy still in effect?

The pandemic-era rule that allows border authorities to quickly expel migrants to their countries of origin remains in effect. Still, not all migrants can be subjected to Title 42 expulsion.

The U.S. ended its diplomatic relationship with Venezuela in 2019, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can't easily return migrants on government flights to Venezuela. Immigrant advocates say some Venezuelans might have strong claims to seek asylum, given the political turbulence in their home country.

Men, women and children crossed the Rio Grande on Wednesday near the border south of El Paso's Chihuahuita neighborhood and presented themselves to Border Patrol agents.

The Border Patrol had established a sort of field processing center in the vicinity. There were portable bathrooms lined up against the border wall, floodlights to allow agents to continue processing people through the night and buses outfitted with computers and Wi-Fi to run background checks in the field.

Anyone with a criminal record was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which also had a bus waiting to take those who would be detained to an immigration detention center.

The Biden administration has tried to end the Title 42 expulsion rule, which was instituted in March 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of the Trump administration's response to COVID-19. But courts have blocked the administration from lifting it.

More:El Paso officials trying to avert humanitarian crisis after migrants dropped Downtown

Why wasn't El Paso prepared for Venezuelan migrants?

El Paso has long relied on the nonprofit Annunciation House to temporarily care for migrants released by the U.S. Border Patrol to pursue lawful immigration status. In July, Annunciation House closed the largest single migrant shelter in the region with space to host roughly 1,500 people.

Although Annunciation House maintains two smaller shelters in El Paso and also organizes a network of church-based shelters in the city and Southern New Mexico, when migrant arrivals top 1,000 per day and daily releases reach the hundreds, the network is unable to accommodate everyone.

The city and county both provide aid to Annunciation House and migrants directly but historically have been reluctant to provide shelter. That might be changing, as the county explores opening a migrant hospitality site.

Venezuelan migrants were sat down in rows by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as hundreds were being held in an area underneath the Loop 375 overpass on the embankment of the Rio Grande on Tuesday.
Venezuelan migrants were sat down in rows by U.S. Customs and Border Protection as hundreds were being held in an area underneath the Loop 375 overpass on the embankment of the Rio Grande on Tuesday.

Why are Venezuelan migrants on El Paso streets?

The U.S. Border Patrol's Central Processing Center in El Paso is overcrowded. Designed to hold no more than 1,700 people, including an annex to the original facility, the center has been overcrowded with hundreds more people than its capacity.

Once migrants are processed for provisional release, Border Patrol and ICE typically try to release them to the Annunciation House shelter network. If the network can't accommodate people, the agencies will drop migrants off on the street "near community shelters, homeless shelters and bus stations," according to a Border Patrol statement.

Many migrants move on quickly from El Paso to their destinations in the U.S., thanks to resources and sponsors who pay for their travel arrangements.

Venezuelans are coming with next to nothing; their national currency is all but worthless. And with a much smaller diaspora in the U.S. than other nationalities, Venezuelans don't have an extensive network in the U.S. on which to rely.

This story has been updated.

Lauren Villagran can be reached at lvillagran@elpasotimes.com or on Twitter @laurenvillagran.

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: 5 things to know about Venezuelan migrants, border crisis in El Paso