More than 65,000 Venezuelans have crossed the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama in the last two months—most of them traveling north toward the United States in the hope of seeking asylum. The Biden administration’s recent expansion of the Title 42 policy to include Venezuelans has taken away that hope and left thousands of people stranded in Mexico, with no access to shelter or basic necessities.
After four months on the road, traveling across 11 countries, with one son in her arms and the other on the shoulders of a kind stranger, Liliana* arrived at the North bus station in Mexico City. She was hopeful for another opportunity to cross the border into the US to seek asylum. Soon after her arrival, that hope was lost. “I don’t know what to do,” said Liliana. “We can't go back to Venezuela.”
Liliana turned herself in to US migration authorities, assuming that she—like thousands of other Venezuelans—could seek asylum. Instead, Liliana and her sons were detained in US custody for 10 days. She was allowed to bathe only once, and her youngest son, who was ill, was not given medical care.
Liliana is just one of the thousands of Venezuelans affected by the Biden administration’s sweeping expansion of the harmful Title 42 policy. Title 42 is a public health order that has been misused during the COVID-19 pandemic to effectively close the US southern border to asylum seekers. It has resulted in more than two million expulsions in less than three years, and on October 12, 2022, it was expanded to include Venezuelans.
“People here do not know where to go or how to reunite with their families that were separated along the border,” said Dr. Geannina Ramos, deputy coordinator of MSF’s migration project in Mexico. “This, of course, is carrying a heavy toll on their mental health, especially for those who have already experienced massive stress from the moment they left their place of origin. This issue greatly affects families’ and people’s health.”
Carolina*, 42, was sitting on the sidewalk outside of the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (COMAR), still wearing the gray clothes that were given to her in the center where she was detained after crossing the border into the US. Since her detention, Carolina hasn’t been able to talk to her 12-year-old nephew. She is the child’s guardian.
“They took our belongings," said Carolina. “For at least eight days, we were [detained] without any rights. I couldn’t communicate with my family. [My nephew] is like my own son. I haven’t been able to speak to him. They have him in a shelter for minors and are waiting to see if a close relative can get there to pick him up. I begged them to deport us together, but it didn’t matter. They took away [our] rights. I showed papers—everything I had. I still don’t know anything about his wellbeing.”
When Carolina was detained, the authorities also took the medications she was carrying with her to treat breast cancer—even though she showed them the medical certificates. Her medications were never returned. She was only given a one-way ticket to Mexico City. When Carolina arrived, there was no room left for her in the shelters—they were completely overwhelmed.
According to Dr. Ramos, civil society shelters in Mexico City had the capacity to shelter around 150 people. In just the first week after the expansion of Title 42, more than 800 people arrived. “There is no floor space anymore,” said Dr. Ramos.
Rodolfo has been sleeping for days at the bus station. He was in detention when the Biden administration announced the expansion of Title 42. “They woke us up at 4 a.m. and told us there is not going to be help for Venezuelans anymore. The president has passed a new law, and we are no longer safe from deportation,” said Rodolfo. “Our hearts shattered. So many sacrifices.... We had been traveling for a month and a half to get to this country after crossing so many other nations and that jungle—only to be left like this, with nothing, not even human rights.”
“They left us in a very dangerous area, in Sonora." said Rodolfo. "There, inside some sort of detention center of the Mexican migration services, we were once again stripped of our belongings. After four days we were let go because the site was [overwhelmed] with so many Venezuelans coming in. We slept on the street. One of our companions was taken from a room she was renting and raped on the street in front of a convenience store. She had also been a victim of rape in the jungle, in the Darién, where I saw at least four dead bodies. We gave her food, and she didn’t even want to eat.”
Since Title 42 was first introduced in 2020, the US government has carried out more than 2.3 million expulsions. The expansion of the policy will likely increase this number in the months to come. “We see the crisis that this generates,” said Dr. Ramos. “They are treated in undignified ways [at] all the points. They’re not even processed for immigration, so they are left in a legal limbo.”
“It’s not fair for a human being, a migrant, or anyone,” said Carolina. “What we Venezuelans have experienced—every foreigner—is extremely tough. They take away one’s right as a mother, and [I] can’t have my child back. They left us here without documents or money. We sold everything to be able to make this journey, and the only thing left for us is the trauma. I don’t want to go to the US anymore. I want to return, retrieve my son, and go back to my country.”
More than six million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years due to political and economic upheaval, with the vast majority living in Colombia and other countries in Latin America. More Venezuelans have been making the long and difficult journey to the US because they are suffering from extreme dangers and hardships elsewhere. US expansion of the Title 42 policy has now left thousands of Venezuelans stranded in Mexico.
Photo caption: Many Venezuelan migrants have reached the US-Mexico border after crossing the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. Here, a Venezuelan migrant and her child are pictured during a consultation with MSF medical staff in Panama after making it through the jungle.
*Name has been changed.