Washington — Approximately 50,000 migrants from crisis-stricken Venezuela crossed the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully last month, a record and once-unthinkable number, according to preliminary Department of Homeland Security statistics obtained by CBS News.
The all-time monthly record in border crossings by Venezuelans partially fueled a yearly high in unauthorized arrivals along the southern border in September, making up roughly a quarter of more than 200,000 apprehensions reported by Border Patrol last month. On some days, as many as 3,000 migrants from Venezuela crossed into the U.S. illegally in 24 hours, the internal DHS figures show.
The tens of thousands of Venezuelan arrivals along the U.S.-Mexico border in September eclipsed the previous monthly record set in September 2022, when nearly 34,000 migrants from Venezuela entered Border Patrol custody.
The unprecedented influx of Venezuelan migrants has further complicated the Biden administration’s migration strategy, both operationally and politically. Venezuela’s refusal to accept U.S. deportations and Mexico’s decision to only accept a limited number of Venezuelans means most of them are released from federal custody near the border. From there, many head to Democratic-led cities like New York and Chicago that are already strained by the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants.
More than 2 million migrants were apprehended by Border Patrol in fiscal year 2023, which ended last week, only the second time in U.S. history that threshold has been surpassed, according to internal DHS figures. While some of them were deported or returned to Mexico, many migrants have been released and allowed to seek asylum, a process that, on average, takes years to be resolved.
U.S. policies fail to deter Venezuelans
The record arrivals of Venezuelans have occurred despite Biden administration policies designed to discourage Venezuelans from entering the U.S. without authorization by offering them opportunities to enter the country legally.
It also vividly illustrates the massive scale of the exodus from Venezuela, now the largest external displacement crisis in the world. In recent years, more than 7 million people have left Venezuela, a once prosperous country that has faced a political and socio-economic crisis under an authoritarian socialist government.
While most initially settled in Colombia, Peru and other South American countries, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have trekked to the U.S. southern border in the past two years. Many of them have traversed Mexico and Central America, including Panama’s infamous Darién Gap, to reach American soil.
In September alone, 75,268 migrants crossed the Darién jungle, the second-highest monthly tally ever recorded, only behind the 82,000 crossings reported there in August, Panamanian government officials told CBS News. More than 400,000 people have crossed that roadless jungle on foot this year.
After the number of Venezuelans arriving to the southern border soared in 2022, the Biden administration unveiled a two-pronged strategy to deter them from entering the U.S. illegally. It convinced Mexico to take back some migrants from Venezuela who crossed into the U.S. border without authorization, and launched a program to allow Venezuelans to fly into the country legally if Americans agreed to sponsor them.
Those policies were expanded to include migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua in Jan. 2023, when the Biden administration also started allowing Venezuelans and other migrants to use a phone app to request an opportunity to enter the U.S. at an official border port of entry.
The strategy had an immediate impact, fueling a sharp drop in illegal entries by migrants from the four targeted countries. Unlawful border entries by Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans have remained far below their peaks in recent years. But the trend was relatively short-lived for Venezuelans, lasting for a few months before illegal crossings by Venezuelans increased sharply again this spring.
Last month, the Biden administration offered work permits and deportation protections to nearly half a million Venezuelans who arrived in the U.S. before July 31, in part to address concerns from big-city Democrats who had been demanding a move that would allow migrants to work legally more quickly. While those who have arrived since the end of July do not qualify for the relief, known as Temporary Protected Status, some officials have internally voiced concerns about the move encouraging more Venezuelans to travel to the U.S.
“The new normal”
Adam Isacson, a migration analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the options available to the Biden administration to stem the flow of U.S.-bound Venezuelan migration are limited.
“They’re in a bit of a bind. It’s the new normal. And there’s not much you can do to block it along the migration route,” Isacson said. “The numbers are bigger than anything Mexico would take. You can’t deport them to Caracas, nor should you because a lot of these people would face danger.”
Isacson said the U.S. could also detain larger numbers of Venezuelans, though Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers can only hold several tens of thousands of migrants at any given time.
Some advocates have also called on the Biden administration to increase the 30,000 monthly cap for the program that allows Venezuelans and other migrants with U.S. sponsors to enter the country legally.
U.S. and Panamanian officials have tried to convince Colombia to take more aggressive steps to slow the migration flow into the Darién Gap. The top U.S. border official at DHS, Blas Nuñez-Neto, recently called the situation there a “humanitarian catastrophe.” But Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first leftist president, has said his government will not stop migrants from entering the jungle, citing humanitarian reasons.
Jose Diaz contributed reporting.
Camilo Montoya-Galvez is the immigration reporter at CBS News. Based in Washington, he covers immigration policy and politics.