EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Feet splash through the mud, then a mother and son flash the victory sign next to a marker on the Colombia-Panama border.
A crowd resting at the top of a hill claps when a youth in a black shirt leads a woman in her 50s by the hand up the steep incline. Young men crack jokes as they hang on to a rope tied to tree trunks at the edge of a rocky bluff where a fall could lead to a broken leg or worse.
Those are images Venezuelan migrants, who arrived in El Paso last week, recorded on their cellphones during their journey through a stretch of Panamanian jungle known as the Darien Gap. The gap in years past has been a physical hurdle and a psychological barrier holding back those South Americans who want to walk north to the United States.
The fact that more Venezuelans are ignoring the perils and opting to take this path means more are likely to follow, says Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office for Latin America.
“This is going to happen for a long time because they cannot be sent back to Caracas (Venezuela). Now that people are getting comfortable going through this horrible, horrible Darien Gap, I don’t know what’s going to stop them,” Isacson said. “This might be the start of a big migration in the fall.”
U.S. border agents in August came across 25,349 Venezuelans at the Southwest border, a 43 percent increase compared to the 17,652 encountered in July and more than four times more than those they apprehended in August of last year, newly released U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows.
Venezuelans are one of the three nationalities driving a 1.8 percent increase in month-to-month apprehensions in August, along with Cubans and Nicaraguans. The number of Mexicans and Northern Triangle of Central America residents apprehended declined slightly.
Isacson said he will not be surprised if CBP encounters with Venezuelans next month exceed 30,000. “Venezuela has – or had – 30 million people and 6.8 million have left. Some 6 million went elsewhere in South America – Colombia, Chile, Argentina – and some are giving up on that,” he said.
Border Report last week interviewed several Venezuelan migrants camping in Downtown El Paso after being released from immigration custody. Many said they weren’t coming directly from their homeland, but rather from neighboring countries where they had found better-paying jobs. Some say wages in Venezuela dropped to as low as $28 a month even as the cost of food and household products skyrocketed.
But in a time of worldwide inflation and with some countries in South America no longer looking kindly on migrants, conditions are growing for Venezuelans to try an alternative.
“In Ecuador last week, we read reports of 600 to 700 Venezuelans heading out of the bus station, with most headed to the United States,” Isacson said. Most of the Venezuelans had been going to Del Rio, Texas, with the intent of turning themselves over to U.S. authorities and asking for asylum, but rumors of deep waters and drownings in the Rio Grande apparently sent them west to El Paso, he said.
El Paso sees ‘no end in sight’ for Venezuelan inflow
In El Paso, the city’s Office of Emergency Management set up a processing and transportation hub in the northeast part of the city. The county on Monday voted to set up its own Migrant Support Services Center near El Paso International Airport.
“It is going to be taking single adults that are able to move quickly through the process and that will take about 35 to 37 percent of that population out of the system, which then allows us to deal with all the other situations and challenges that we have,” County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said.
He said he toured the center and is satisfied that it is away from residential areas and has space to accommodate arriving and departing buses. It has restrooms and empty office space. The latter could be used by non-governmental organizations to interact with individual migrants.
The county hired a contractor that provided services for Afghan refugees last year to operate the center.
Asked when he expects the ongoing historic migrant surge to last, the county judge there is no telling.
“When people say, ‘how long is this going to last?’ If I were to be as realistic as possible, there is no end in sight,” Samaniego said. “Right now, we had 1,600 apprehensions last night, I think 1,800 before and we’ve gone as high as 2,200. That fills the detention centers. (But) we are very good at moving individuals because they had sponsors, they had money and we were able to move them. And if they were under Title 42, we would be able to move them very quickly to Mexico.”
But Venezuelans are not amenable to Title 42 public health order. “The problem with Venezuela being a communist country, they won’t accept them. They’re actually encouraging them to leave if they want to. And that makes it difficult.”
Venezuela has been in an economic crisis and political upheaval during the past two decades following the takeover by populist leader Hugo Chavez, who was then succeeded by Nicolas Maduro. The COVID-19 pandemic only made things worse, with hyperinflation and low salaries being the norm, according to reports.
Samaniego said word has filtered down to Venezuelans that the United States “has to take them,” and that is driving the surge all along the Southwest border.
“They’re coming in with the same profile: very few have money, most of them don’t have sponsors. This is an anomaly we hadn’t dealt with. That’s why it took us some time to address it to the point we haven’t released migrants to the streets for three days now, and that’s a big accomplishment,” the county judge said.
A total of 258,766 migrants have crossed the border in the El Paso Sector so far this fiscal year, while another 13,356 have been detained at area ports of entry, CBP data shows. That includes 29,703 who were stopped by the Border Patrol and 1,995 encountered at ports of entry in August alone.