By Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg
(Reuters) -The United States is restarting deportations of Venezuelans who cross the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Thursday, part of attempts to curb a record number of migrant crossings.
President Joe Biden, who took office in January 2021, has faced historic illegal border crossings, fueled by a sharp rise in recent years of migrants fleeing economic and political turmoil in Venezuela.
Washington reached an agreement with Venezuela to repatriate Venezuelans “who do not take advantage of the lawful pathways and instead arrive irregularly at our southern border and do not qualify for relief,” Mayorkas said at a news conference in Mexico City.
Speaking after meetings between senior U.S. and Mexican officials covering issues including migration, Mayorkas described the move as part of efforts to ensure “strict consequences” for those entering the United States illegally.
“We are a nation of immigrants, and we are a nation of laws,” he added.
The new policy takes immediate effect.
The announcement was made on the same day Biden, a Democrat, said he would expand sections of the border wall, a signature policy of his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who is the frontrunner to face him in the 2024 presidential election.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have trekked through the treacherous jungle region known as the Darien Gap to reach the U.S.-Mexico border in the past two years. The record number of arrivals has strained resources in cities across the United States, with Democratic officials in New York and Chicago sounding the alarm.
Frosty diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Venezuela had made it difficult for the U.S. to deport Venezuelans to their home country.
The agreement will ensure “orderly, safe and legal repatriation,” the Venezuelan government said in a statement posted on X by Foreign Minister Yvan Gil. Migration is the direct result of sanctions, the Venezuelan government added, repeating its frequent accusation that U.S. measures are a violation of international law.
The United States has granted temporary protected status to Venezuelans who arrived in the United States before the end of July, but has now made a determination those who arrived after that date could be safely returned to Venezuela, Mayorkas said.
U.S. officials, who spoke earlier on Thursday about the move on the grounds they not be identified, said the move was “a direct consequence of these individuals not having availed themselves of the lawful pathways that we have created and expanded.”
More than 66,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the United States using pathways such as humanitarian parole for Venezuelans who apply from abroad and have U.S. sponsors, one of the officials said.
Last month, Washington said it would grant temporary deportation relief and access to work permits to nearly half a million Venezuelans already in the country as of end-July.
The United Nations estimates some 7.7 million Venezuelans have migrated out of their home country. Some 6.5 million of them have remained in Latin America and the Caribbean, where some countries, including Colombia, have granted them legal status en masse.
Though Venezuela’s economy showed some signs of nascent recovery in recent years, thanks largely to a de facto dollarization, businesses are once again closing their doors as inflation hovers around 400%. Many Venezuelans depend on remittances from abroad to buy basics like food and medicine.
Biden’s administration has only slightly eased a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and other measures imposed by Trump against the Socialist government of Nicolas Maduro.
Washington has insisted Maduro must take steps toward free elections before it considers any further significant sanctions relief, though the U.S. has faced calls from some Latin American governments to take such action without further delay.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg, Kristina Cooke, Julia Symmes Cobb, Vivian Sequera, Matt Spetalnick and Simon Lewis, writing by David Ljunggren; editing by Grant McCool and Chris Reese)