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US expels Venezuelan migrants to Colombia under COVID powers

January 31, 2022 GMT

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The Biden administration said Monday that it has begun expelling Venezuelan migrants to Colombia without a chance to seek asylum after entering the United States from Mexico, its latest use of pandemic-related authority.

The development also was confirmed by Colombian officials.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it will expel Venezuelans to Colombia “on a regular basis,” without elaborating on the frequency. They will be limited to Venezuelans who previously resided in Colombia, it said.

The first two Venezuelans were expelled Thursday after entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico, U.S. and Colombian officials said. Colombia’s immigration agency said they were on a commercial flight.

Homeland Security said it acted after discussions with the Colombian government. Colombia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry did not immediately respond to questions.

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Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said a meeting was held in December to discuss the possibility of receiving Venezuelan deportees who had already been granted temporary residency in Colombia.

It said there was no specific figure on how many Venezuelans would be sent to Colombia, but both sides agreed that the operation would be conducted “with the coordination” of both countries and “following health and safety protocols.”

The move is a response to a rising number of Venezuelans seeking refuge in the United States as their South American country unravels.

In December, U.S. authorities encountered Venezuelans crossing the Mexican border illegally nearly 25,000 times, the second highest nationality after Mexicans. The number was more than double that of only three months earlier and up from only about 200 a year previously.

Crossings were concentrated in the Border Patrol’s Yuma, Arizona, and Del Rio, Texas, sectors. About 15,000 migrants, mostly Haitians, assembled in Del Rio, a town of 35,000 people, in September. Venezuelans typically arrive by plane in Mexicali, Mexico, before crossing at nearby Yuma.

Mexico began requiring visas of Venezuelans on Jan. 21, following similar restrictions imposed last year on Brazilians and Ecuadorians in response to large numbers of migrants headed to the U.S. border.

It remains unclear if the travel restrictions will lead to a drop in Venezuelan migrants reaching the U.S. border. The number of Ecuadorian migrants plummeted last year under the new visa requirement, while the flow of Brazilians has continued.

Since March 2020, the U.S. has expelled migrants at the Mexican border without an opportunity to seek asylum under what is known as Title 42 authority, named for a 1944 public law that was invoked to contain spread of the coronavirus.

Mexico has agreed to accept migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but those from other countries are often allowed to remain in the United States to seek asylum because the U.S. lacks detention space or resources to expel them under Title 42 authority.

Olga Byrne, director of immigration matters for the International Rescue Committee, criticized the action.

“Despite commitments announced by the U.S. Administration in the first 100 days, harmful policies like Title 42 are still in place more than one year after taking office,” she said in a statement. “Title 42 expulsions deprive asylum seekers of due process, instead sending them back to dangerous conditions, similar if not worse to those they escaped. In certain cases, they send them to third countries, like Colombia, that for years have stepped up to welcome Venezuelan asylum seekers.”

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Associated Press writer Manuel Rueda reported this story in Bogota and AP writer Elliot Spagat reported from San Diego.