Venezuela on the Rio Grande

By Kent Paterson

Standing tall and stoic, Albert Silva gazed at the barbed wire topping the fence on the U.S. side of the concrete-lined Rio Grande dividing Ciudad Juárez, from El Paso, Texas. After eight days in Juárez, the Venezuelan national was visibly frustrated and fatigued in his quest to enter the U.S. with a claim of political asylum. “People are getting desperate,” he offered, assessing the mood of hundreds of his compatriots camped out behind the government complex housing a health center and the Chihuahua state migrant agency near the banks of the Rio Grande.

According to Silva, he and other Venezuelans arrived in Juárez after the bus they were riding was stopped in the middle of the night somewhere in Mexico by unidentified men, the latest incarnation of the recurring highway men of Mexican history, who robbed the passengers of their valuables. Like others interviewed at the encampment, Silva said he had scraped together all his financial resources to come to the U.S.-Mexico border and was now in a pickle.

In October thousands of Venezuelans streamed into Juarez, some arriving in buses traversing Mexico from the south and others deported from the U.S. as the Biden administration, with agreement by Mexico’s federal government, invoked the Title 42 public health provision (first employed by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic), shutting the border October 13 to Venezuelan migrants/refugees with irregular status.

Simultaneously, the White House announced it would grant 24,000 visas to Venezuelans who arrive to the U.S. by air and meet certain conditions like having a sponsor and possessing the proper documentation. The measure, however, is scored by critics including Mexican academic Tonatiuh Guillén, who briefly served as head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute in 2018-19, as falling far short of the number of visas sought by asylum seekers, and failing to account for the difficulty many migrants/refugees have in accessing documentation.

While many Venezuelans have found temporary refuge in hotels or migrant/refugee shelters operated by Mexican government and non-governmental organizations in Juárez, a large group numbering in the hundreds camped out behind the government building alongside the Rio Grande in a bid to keep their cause in the public eye.

Precariously sheltered in tents or makeshift quarters fashioned out of blankets or cardboard, the Venezuelans waited for a chance to enter the U.S.- a prospect that seemed dimming as the chill of fall descended on the land.

Meantime, children dashed back and forth across adjacent train tracks, while groups or pairs of people strolled along the embankment of the U.S. side of the river, perhaps in hopes of surrendering to the Border Patrol. Coughs hacked here and there, and one man with stomach troubles lay on the ground moaning before falling asleep.

During the days of October 23-25, the newcomers got a taste of the Paso del Norte’s inclement weather, when bitter winds lashed the borderland, rain showered the desert ground and temperatures dropped as much as 20 degrees.

The Venezuelans are the latest wave of migrants and refugees since 2018 to land in Juárez. First came the Cubans and Central Americans. Next up were thousands of Mexicans fleeing violence-torn regions of their own country. By 2022, Haitians joined more Cubans and Central Americans.

In addition to Venezuelans, some Colombians have begun arriving, adding to the mosaic of nationalities braving the streets of the Mexican border city. Interspersed among these nationalities were people from dozens of other countries in a chaotic and war-torn world.

From Jungle to River

In and around the Rio Grande encampment, tense body movements, drooping eyes and nervous talk accompany campers’ stories. Every migrant/refugee has an individual story that forms part of larger, collective saga.

A woman who preferred anonymity spoke of dodging drug dealers, greedy human traffickers, negligent or corrupt police, and a cold-hearted immigration detention system beginning in South America, continuing into Central America, crisscrossing the interior of Mexico and then leaping over to the border into the U.S. Showing the reporter what could be perceived as a cryptic threat, she insisted a return to her home country would spell death.

Flashing photos of her beaten, scaling feet, another young woman from Venezuela recounted the trek across the perilous Darien Gap of Panama where she beheld the dead whose dreams were devoured by the jungle. Children had fallen off cliffs, and some people with broken bones were stuck in the wilderness, she exclaimed.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the number of Venezuelans successfully daring the Darien soared from “roughly 1,500” between January and September 2021 to more than 107,000 during the same time period this year.

The 24-year-old woman narrated how her perilous journey was propelled by an education truncated by rising tuition costs and parents who could not afford needed medicine, as well as a friend in a U.S. state who might be able to provide the secure base she needs to make a decent living and move ahead in life.

Her memory of the migrant/refugee route mapped out stops in multiple nations where graft-minded police and systemic shakedowns are the order of the day. Finally, the road led to a stint in U.S. immigration detention shared with people from Ecuador, Brazil, Turkey and other conflictive regions of the globe before deportation back to Mexico.

Ciudad Juárez, however, at least provided some relief, she continued. “(People) have helped us a lot in Juárez, better than any place in Mexico,” she said.

Several of the woman’s companions chimed in on the conversation. Varying in age, Alvaro Puerta, Antonio Lemus, Enrique Soto and Luis Rodríguez hail from different places in Venezuela. Most of the men said they were detained with a larger group that surrendered to U.S. authorities earlier in October and were returned to Juárez, after a stint in immigration detention and having many of their personal items confiscated.

Not surprisingly, the men were upset at their treatment by U.S. authorities, who ironically represent a government at loggerheads with the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, ostensibly over human rights and democracy concerns

All the sojourners interviewed at the encampment cited “dictatorship,” “corruption” “inflation,” “hunger,” as well as the lack of work as reasons for wanting to enter the U.S. and obtain gainful employment. An opponent of the Maduro government, Puerta said he can’t go home and seeks political asylum in this country.

Bulging teary eyes and conveying emotional voices, the men shot back questions for the reporter. What are the chances of Title 42 getting dropped? Why were some Venezuelans allowed to continue into the U.S. interior while others were returned to Juárez? Why are families being separated? What will happen to them?

Fretful and fidgety, Antonio Lemus said his wife, eight months pregnant, was detained together with him but allowed to travel to the Midwest while he was unceremoniously dispatched over the river to Juárez. At the time of the interview, Lemus said had not heard from his wife for about 24 hours and was very worried.

Describing himself as eager to work, Lemus echoed accounts of fellow Venezuelans selling everything they had and trudging through a death-shrouded jungle in order to have a better life in the U.S. “I think we deserve an opportunity,” he asserted.

Indeed, despite talk of recession and the Federal Reserve’s best efforts at detonating one, jobs are available on the other side of the Rio Grande, beginning in El Paso. An unscientific, random drive up a small swath of main drag Mesa Street in El Paso found at least 10 businesses with help wanted signs. Golden Corral advertised for servers with a weekly pay of $300-$500, and Kentucky Fried Chicken offered pay of $10 per hour.

Separately, the Juárez municipal government declared in a recent press release that work was available for both residents and migrants. In fact, the growing maquiladora (export assembly plant) industry claims local labor shortages in the neighborhood 25,000 workers plus.

Not far from where the Venezuelans are camped, flyers from an electronics components manufacturer tacked on utility poles advertised production jobs for about $14 per day plus transportation, food, life insurance and other benefits. As a lure, the flyer offered a hiring bonus of approximately $550.00 divided into a 12 week period.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute has commenced granting temporary visas for up to six months to the Venezuelans, but it remains unclear how many of the migrants/refugees can pass through the paperwork hoops necessary for legal work authorization.

Yet none of the Venezuelans interviewed at the encampment expressed interest in either staying or working in Juárez. As one man remarked, why should he work in Mexico for $15 a day when he can earn the same amount in an hour in the U.S?

Barring a shift in U.S. policy, it remains to be seen how many Venezuelans will wind up stuck in Juarez and forced to find jobs, legal or otherwise, if their options continue to sour.

The Paso del Norte Borderland Steps Up to the Plate- Again

As in previous migrant/refugee crises that have played out in the binational Paso del Norte borderland, the arrival of the Venezuelans stirred into action civil society organizations, churches, Mexican government agencies and Good Samaritans on both sides of the border.

Set below the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Juárez and El Paso, up two steep flights of stairs at the rear of the government complex, stands the Juárez offices of the Chihuahua state government’s population and migration agency, COESPO. On a recent day, the office was a beehive of activity as Venezuelans trooped in and out of the office. A woman in a cleaning company uniform burst out to a staff member that she lost personal documentation after she and others were robbed.

Migrant route map on wall outside COESPO (State Population Council) offices

Two young women, one affiliated with a non-governmental organization and the other with COESPO, hopped around attending the migrants. Their job is to orient the Venezuelans (and others) about services and options in the U.S. and Mexico. The COESPO office also shares space with other migrant-serving organizations like the Mexican Committee to Aid Refugees (COMAR).

At or near the site, sanitary facilities and water are limited. According to Aurora Sánchez, Coespo social worker, humanitarian aid-food and water, hygienic items and other supplies-remains a big need.

“We’ve received a lot of support from the community in Juárez,” Sánchez said. The latest outpouring of solidarity has been augmented by individuals from the U.S. side bringing clothing and supplies, she added.

Usually open from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, Sánchez said the COESPO office had lately operated on Saturdays and sometimes until 1 am in the evening because of the demand for services.

Moving on to the next task, Sánchez and her helper suddenly began closing the office to people coming off the street and informing them that staff had to have a special session with another group of deportees from the U.S. about ready to arrive.

Located in the city’s downtown, the Juárez Free Store is among many civil society organizations lending a helping hand in the latest crisis. Offering free items, the store’s concept recalls the old hippie Digger outlet of the 1960s in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

Juárez Free Store staffer Tomás Flores said he and his colleagues serviced an average of 250 Venezuelans daily during one week alone in October. Men’s clothing in particular was quickly snatched up, and a need exists for more donations such as foot wear for both sexes and winter clothing. “They come from a different climate, and it is harsh here during the winter,” Flores stressed.

The young man concurred with the widespread view that civil society plays a critical if not central role in migrant/refugee assistance in Juárez-El Paso. “The ones that do most of the work are the civil society organizations and collectives like us,” he contended.

Although Albert Silva is grateful to religious groups and others who’ve brought food and assistance to the migrants/refugees, he feared the clock is ticking. “We’re in Mexico, and they’ve supported us to a degree, but that can’t last forever…I don’t want to be begging all the time,” he said in a somber tone.

Silva maintains his eyes on prize, the land across the walled, camera-festooned and barbed-wired river. Counting studies in computer systems, the 28-year-old Venezuelan said he’d like to update his education in the U.S. and resume a career path that was interrupted by the crisis in his country.

In the interim, he’s willing to work a variety of jobs. At the end of the day, he said he wants his offspring to know that he accomplished something in life. “I don’t want to be a failure, being a failure is not part of my goal in life,” Silva concluded.

International Crisis Management and Venezuela

A witch’s brew of geopolitical forces is shaping the fate of Venezuelans and other migrants/refugees stranded on the Rio Grande. In Venezuela’s case, U.S. pressure on the Maduro government has included stiff economic sanctions that virtually guarantee mass emigration.

A 2019 paper co-authored by U.S. economists Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs for the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research seriously questioned the legality of the sanctions under international and domestic law, describing them as akin to the “collective punishment” of the population prohibited by the Geneva and Hague international conventions.

The two economists asserted that U.S. policy, hardened under the Trump administration and continued by the Biden White House, exacerbated Venezuela’s economic crisis, making “it nearly impossible to stabilize the economy, contributing further to excess deaths.”

An initial round of negotiations between the Biden White House and Caracas, as well as Mexican efforts at brokering an end to the political conflict in Venezuela, have so far not born fruit. Maduro’s forces, meanwhile, have reconsolidated their position vis-a-vis a divided opposition.

Thrown into the mix are U.S. pressures on Mexico to contain the migrant/refugee flow at the southern border, Mexican initiatives to chart a leading political role in the hemisphere while leveraging U.S. political and financial assistance aimed at stabilizing migrant-sending nations, the practically institutionalized hot button issue of immigration in U.S. elections, and the Mexican presidential transition, though which still nearly two years away, now commands great attention south of the border.

A variety of wild cards flutter over the scenario, not the least of which is the manipulation and control of the international energy market in the wake of the Ukraine war and Venezuela’s huge oil reserves locked up by U.S. sanctions.

As the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis deepened, a big meeting hosted by the Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretariat was held in Mexico City October 23 between representatives of the three branches of the Mexican government, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In general terms, the participants agreed on an action plan to bolster migrant shelters, deliver more food and supplies, and provide psychological help to children and adolescents.

In Juárez, the municipal government announced it was coordinating migrant/refugee assistance with the Chihuahua state government, Mexican Consulate in El Paso and other entities. According to municipal authorities, the Mexican border city was receiving 200 deportees daily at one point in October.

COMAR’s Andrés Ramírez Silva underscored the importance of issuing immigration documents to persons who do not desire to return to Venezuela or other nations but don’t meet the current requirements to enter the United States so they can have a regularized presence in Mexico and legally work.

A day previous to the multi-party meeting, Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador praised the U.S. announcement of 24,000 visas for Venezuelans, but warned that the number was “insufficient” and proposed that more should be issued as further needs arise.

More than 200,000 Venezuelans were detained the U.S.-Mexico border from January 2021 to August 2022, HRW recently reported.

Quoted in the Mexican daily La Jornada, López Obrador reiterated that Mexico, a fraternal country, would fulfill its humanitarian responsibility. Calling for a rapprochement between Washington and Caracas, reestablishing relations between the two governments was an “indispensable” move, López Obrador opined.

Almost uniformly, U.S.-based migrant and refugee advocacy organizations and human rights groups condemned the Biden administration’s application of Title 42 and refusal to hear out the Venezuelan asylum seekers arriving by land to the border as a violation of international law.

HRW contended, “Expelling asylum seekers without allowing them to make their claims violates the Refugee Convention, the Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The Mexico office of the United Nations’ International Migration Organization, which is active in Juarez and other parts of the country, credited Washington and Mexico City for taking positive steps in establishing a process which allows Venezuelans to legally enter the United States, but warned that Title 42 and the bending of international law was a grave concern.

“…More people are put at risk, families and desperate children, every day these policies are maintained,” the UN agency declared in an October press release. “The safety and well-being of children, including children who arrive with their families, is a fundamental concern. Their superior welfare must be protected.”

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