The Migrant Humanitarian Crisis Deepens on the Rio Grande 

Photograph Source: Glysiak – CC BY 3.0

The long-running migrant/refugee crisis gripping the U.S.-Mexico border erupted again into violence on Halloween Day 2022. This time the incident involved mainly Venezuelan asylum seekers who’ve been camped out for weeks on the Rio Grande dividing Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, from El Paso, Texas.

An October 31 demonstration in the drying out river bed  by migrants seeking entrance into the U.S. turned sour when, according to accounts published in the Ciudad Juárez and El Paso press, a Central American migrant allegedly tossed a rock at deploying U.S. Border Patrol agents who responded by attempting to arrest some protesters and firing pepper spray projectiles. At least two migrants were reportedly injured in the altercation before matters deescalated.

A visit to the encampment by this reporter about a week earlier found a tens and exhausted mood among hundreds of migrants and refugees, who include numerous children.  “People are getting desperate,” summed up Venezuelan asylum seeker Albert Silva.

In October thousands of Venezuelans streamed into Juárez, 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, was criticized by human rights and migrant advocates as falling far short of the number of visas sought by asylum seekers, as well as failing to account for the difficulty many migrants/refugees have in accessing the required documentation.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the White House’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.

The international advocacy group 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.”

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

The Mexico office of the United Nations’ International Migration Organization credited Washington and Mexico City for taking positive steps in establishing a process which permits 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 a 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.”

Previous to the October 13 policy change, thousands of Venezuelans were admitted into El Paso and other ports of entry and sent on their way to points varied in the U.S for several weeks.

The latest crisis in the Paso del Norte borderland occurred as news hit that the 2021-22 U.S. Fiscal Year proved the deadliest one on record for migrants and refugees attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, with 853 deaths registered by the U.S. Border Patrol, according to CBS news.

Mortalities were attributed to drownings in the Rio Grande and dehydration during unsuccessful desert crossings, among other causes. Worse yet, the death toll is certainly an undercount since it doesn’t take into account deaths not recorded by the Border Patrol agencies.

Nor does the statistic include migrants/refugees who perished in Mexico on their way to the U.S.

An ongoing tragedy that’s haunted the borderlands for decades witnessed ever-greater horrors in 2022, including the drowning of a five-year-old Guatemalan girl who slipped from her mother’s embrace during a failed crossing of the Rio Grande in El Paso, and the suffocation of 53 migrants trapped in a in truck trailer in Texas.

 “By design or default, this risk of death has effectively become an element of the US government’s blunt deterrence strategy at the border…” commented El Paso’s pro-migrant Hope Border Institute.

Moreover, the new fiscal year is likewise underway with grim news. A woman who was found dead October 19 in the desert outskirts of El Paso was later identified as 42-year-old Guatemalan National Delmy Odilia Timal Urtado. According to an El Paso County Sherriff’s Office news posting, “the incident is being handled as a homicide”

Surviving the Darien Death Trap

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.

Though each migrant or asylum seeker has a unique story to tell, men and women interviewed at the Rio Grande encampment told similar tales of a long, grueling odyssey across continents riddled with official and non-official exploitation, thievery, violence and rejection.

A woman who preferred anonymity spoke of dodging drug dealers, greedy human traffickers, negligent or corrupt police, rape, 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 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.

 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 male companions chimed in on the conversation. 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, Alvaro Puerta said he can’t go home and seeks political asylum in this country.

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.

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

As in previous migrant/refugee crises that have unfolded 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.

At or near the encampment site, sanitary facilities and water are limited.  According to Aurora Sánchez, social worker for the Chihuahua state migrant and population agency Coespo, 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.

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 the 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.

International Crisis Management, Venezuela and the Border

A witch’s brew of geopolitical forces is shaping the fate of Venezuelans and other migrants/refugees stranded on the Rio Grande and farther south in Mexico. In Venezuela’s case, stiff U.S. sanctions on the Maduro government 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, has 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 wedge immigration issue practically institutionalized in U.S. elections, and the Mexican presidential transition, though which still nearly two years away, now commands great attention south of the border.

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 migrant 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.

Andrés Ramírez Silva of the Mexican Committee to Aid Refugees 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.

Although Mexico’s National Migration Institute has begun issuing temporary six-month visas to the Venezuelans, proposals by Mexican business leaders and politicians to allow the Venezuelans to stay and work in Mexico, especially in the foreign owned export-oriented factories of Juárez where labor shortages are claimed, could prove trickier to implement because of bureaucratic rules as well as the unwillingness of Venezuelans to try their luck in Mexico- at least for now. None of the migrants/refugees interviewed at the Rio Grande encampment expressed a desire to live and work in Mexico.

A day previous to the October 23 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.

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.

Back on the border, meanwhile, the big limbo for migrants and refugees drags on as the weather grows colder and winter approaches.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.