Comment on this storyComment
U.S. officials said Thursday that they will resume direct deportation flights to Venezuela and fast-track construction of new barriers along the southern border, moves aimed at curbing the record number of illegal crossings into the United States under President Biden.
Nearly 500,000 Venezuelans have crossed the southern border since 2020, and U.S. authorities have had little ability to return them as a result of strained U.S. relations with the autocratic government of President Nicolás Maduro.
Biden officials who briefed reporters on the plans Thursday did not say how many deportation flights they planned to send, and declined to discuss negotiations with the Maduro government. The announcement comes two weeks after Biden extended temporary legal status to more than 470,000 Venezuelans living in the United States, saying political and economic turmoil in their homeland made it unsafe to send them home.
Only Venezuelans who arrived before July 31 are eligible for the temporary legal status, and Biden officials said those who have arrived illegally since then will be a priority for the deportation flights.
Venezuelans account for the largest number of migrants staying in badly strained shelters in New York, whose mayor, Eric Adams (D), has become a sharp critic of President Biden’s handling of border issues. Other Democrats have criticized Biden for leaving in place U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela that they say are driving even more people to flee.
The Maduro government issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the deal while blaming the exodus of its citizens on U.S. policies it denounced as a “direct consequence of coercive unilateral measures and the blockade of our economy.”
More than 7 million Venezuelans have left their nation over the past decade, and many of those making the dangerous trek through Panama’s Darien jungle en route to the United States have been living in Colombia, Ecuador and other nations in the region. They now risk a return to a country roiled by food shortages, power blackouts and organized crime.
The Department of Homeland Security said the decision to resume Venezuela deportations was “consistent with the Administration’s efforts to implement a strategy of humane, safe, and orderly enforcement of our immigration laws and to process individuals in a fair and fast manner.”
The DHS said those efforts include a major expansion of legal opportunities for Venezuelans to enter the United States that has allowed nearly 70,000 to arrive this year through a program known as humanitarian parole process, or after making an appointment at the southern border using a mobile application.
The announcement followed a separate notice from Biden officials who said they will bypass environmental and conservation laws for the first time to fast-track barrier construction along the southern border, citing an “acute and immediate” need to stop soaring numbers of migrants crossing illegally in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
That announcement, published in the Federal Register, amounted to a shift for Biden, who rebuked his predecessor’s pet project by vowing as he ran for office that he would not build “another foot of wall.” Biden halted construction on Inauguration Day in January 2021.
Asked by reporters at the White House on Thursday about his administration’s plans, the president said he did not believe the barriers were effective but construction had to move forward because Congress already appropriated the money.
“I can’t stop that,” Biden said, without elaborating. He took no further questions.
The Federal Register notice issued by the DHS said the administration faces an overwhelming increase in illegal border entries, requiring new barriers whose construction cannot be delayed by U.S. environmental laws and other safeguards.
“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries,” said the notice, signed by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Mayorkas said the administration will waive more than two dozen laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
His notice described plans for new segments of fencing at 10 locations in the Rio Grande Valley, where U.S. agents made nearly 245,000 border arrests during the 2023 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Biden’s pause on construction in January 2021 left the $11 billion wall — one of the most expensive federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history — with dozens of gaps and piles of unused steel bollards lying around in the desert.
Republican lawmakers have been trying to force the administration to resume construction on the roughly 250 additional miles of barriers called for in the Trump plan. President Donald Trump added about 450 miles of barriers during his term.
Biden’s Inauguration Day order that halted construction allowed for exceptions to “avert immediate physical dangers.” Mayorkas later authorized crews to close some unfinished areas using money previously authorized by Congress, citing concerns such as site safety, erosion prevention and a need to shore up the structural integrity of the barriers.
Asked about the need for the waivers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials took an expansive view of the safety exception, saying the protection of U.S. agents, migrants and border communities fits within the scope of Biden’s January 2021 order.
CBP officials said the new segments they plan to build will minimize environmental impacts by using a movable “Jersey barrier” foundation, in contrast to existing segments of the barriers that are anchored in concrete.
“CBP remains committed to protecting the nation’s cultural and natural resources and will implement sound environmental practices as part of the project covered by this waiver,” CBP spokesperson Erin Waters said in a statement.
Last month, Border Patrol agents made nearly 219,000 arrests along the southern border, the highest monthly tally in 2023, according to preliminary CBP data obtained by The Washington Post. The Rio Grande Valley was CBP’s second-busiest sector in September, after Arizona’s Tucson sector, the data shows.
U.S. agents have made more than 6 million arrests along the southern border during the past three years, the busiest span in the 100-year history of the Border Patrol.
Wildlife advocates who applauded Biden’s construction freeze in 2021 said they were dismayed to see his administration adding more miles of steel barriers, which block the migratory routes of larger mammals.
“It’s disheartening to see President Biden stoop to this level, casting aside our nation’s bedrock environmental laws to build ineffective wildlife-killing border walls,” Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
The area where the new segments will be added, Starr County, “is home to some of the most spectacular and biologically important habitat left in Texas, and now bulldozers are preparing to rip right through it,” Jordahl said. “This is a horrific step backwards for the borderlands.”
The border wall’s effectiveness at preventing illegal crossings remains a point of contention. Smuggling organizations in Mexico have sawed through its steel bars thousands of times, requiring millions of dollars in repairs. Smugglers also regularly deploy cheap ladders to bring migrants over the top, lowering them down the other side with ropes.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas rebuffed criticism over his decision to extend the border wall on Oct. 5. (Video: Reuters)
Mayorkas issued a separate statement saying the barrier extension did not amount to a policy change.
“From day one, this Administration has made clear that a border wall is not the answer,” Mayorkas said. “That remains our position and our position has never wavered. The language in the Federal Register notice is being taken out of context and it does not signify any change in policy whatsoever.”
Samantha Schmidt in Bogotá, Colombia, contributed to this report.