WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY, Sept 13 (Reuters) – As border crossings hit record highs, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is quietly pressuring Mexico to accept more migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and from Venezuela under a COVID-19 deportation order that the White House has publicly sought to end, seven U.S. and three Mexican officials said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns about an increase in the number of migrant crossings from the three countries during a visit to Mexico City on Monday, two US and two Mexican officials told Reuters, but Mexico did not promise any specific action.
A US official said trying to convince Mexico to agree was “an uphill battle”.
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All sources requested anonymity to discuss internal government matters.
Mexico is already accepting US returns of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. So far this fiscal year, around 299,000 people from these countries have been deported at the border, compared to around 9,000 returning from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The US effort to pressure Mexico over these three particular nationalities illustrates the depth of concern within the Biden Democratic administration over their border crossings. Most migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela crossing into the United States are allowed to stay to apply for asylum, as they are difficult to deport due to frosty diplomatic relations with their governments.
The Mexican Foreign Ministry declined to comment. A spokesman for the White House National Security Council declined to discuss “diplomatic conversations” but said countries in the region “have already begun to collectively assume responsibility for managing migration flows, including through the repatriation bias”.
US border agents have made a record 1.8 million migrant arrests so far in fiscal year 2022, many of whom have attempted to cross multiple times, creating humanitarian challenges and political liability for Biden ahead of the November 8 midterm elections.
Of those apprehensions at the southwest border, nearly a quarter of migrants were from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, up from 8% in 2021 and 3% in 2020. Most were allowed to enter the United States for pursue immigration cases.
The Biden administration has publicly sought to end the COVID health order, known as Title 42. Issued in early 2020 under former Republican President Donald Trump, it allows US border officials to quickly remove migrants to Mexico or other countries without the possibility of seeking American asylum. . A Trump-appointed federal judge in Louisiana blocked the administration from ending the order earlier this year, even as US health officials said it was no longer necessary to protect against the spread of COVID. Read more
But behind closed doors, some Biden officials still view expanding deportations as a way to deter passers-by, one of the US officials said, even as it contradicts the Democratic Party’s more welcoming message to migrants.
Advocates and many Democrats fiercely oppose Title 42, saying it has exposed migrants to dangerous conditions in Mexico, including kidnapping and extortion.
“I think it really betrays their commitments to refugee protection,” said Robyn Barnard, associate director for refugee advocacy with the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First.
Two Mexican officials told Reuters that Mexico does not want to take in Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans deported from the United States because those countries also refuse to accept deportation flights from Mexico.
Instead, Mexico aims to step up internal migrant flights from its northern border to its southern border to relieve pressure on the shared border, one of the officials said.
Mexico would like Washington to ease economic sanctions against Venezuela to help curb exodus from the country and facilitate legal labor for migrants in the United States, two Mexican officials have said.
Meanwhile, US border officials in El Paso, Texas, said they were forced to release hundreds of migrants onto city streets near shelters and bus stations to ease overcrowding at their facilities.
Many Venezuelans arriving do not have family members or sponsors, further straining the charities and government organizations helping them, said Mario D’Agostino, deputy city manager of El Paso.
The Democratic-controlled city has contracted charter buses to ferry migrants north to New York, an effort that comes after Republican governors of Texas and Arizona drew national attention by transporting thousands migrants to northern cities run by the Democrats. Read more
PRESSURE ON OTHER NATIONS
Biden officials are also exploring ways to hold other countries accountable beyond Mexico, sources said.
For example, the White House wants Panama to accept deported Venezuelans if they pass through the Central American nation en route to the United States, two of the US officials said.
Nearly 70,000 Venezuelans entered Panama from its Colombian border this year through August, compared to 1,150 in the same period last year, according to official data.
Panamanian government officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Separately, the Biden administration had sent a small number of Venezuelans to the Dominican Republic on commercial flights, two of the U.S. officials said, continuing a Trump-era practice.
But the program was halted after a pushback earlier this year from the office of Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, according to one of the US officials and a person familiar with the matter. In February, Menendez described as “extremely worrying” the deportation of migrants fleeing Venezuela’s “cruel regime” to third countries.
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Reporting by Ted Hesson, Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington and Dave Graham and Daina Solomon in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez and Elida Moreno in Panama City; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Aurora Ellis
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