Carolina Urribarrí’s mother was distressed when she called her daughter on Friday morning. “You can’t leave! They’re going to send you back!” she yelled. She had seen a video on TikTok — the United States was going to start deporting Venezuelans who entered the country illegally.
“Now I am afraid to leave,” said Ms. Urribarrí, 26, who had hoped to start making the long trek from Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, to the United States next week with her 6-month-old daughter. “The sacrifice is worthless if they are going to send me back.”
Together with a group of nine other people, they were planning to cross the treacherous Darién Gap, a jungle path linking South and Central America, to try to join her partner in Utah.
On Thursday, the Biden administration said it would restart deportation flights to Venezuela only two weeks after extending humanitarian protections to 500,000 Venezuelan migrants already in the United States.
The move, aimed at reducing a surge in illegal crossings at the southern border, has ignited outcry from Venezuelans inside and outside the country.
Francisco D’Angelo, a lawyer representing an association that aids Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico, had been meeting in Panama with members of some 50 Venezuelan organizations from across the world when news of the announcement came.
“No one can agree with this measure,” said Mr. D’Angelo, adding that he was forced to flee Venezuela 20 years ago after criticizing the government of former President Hugo Chávez. “This decision is a bucket of cold water because, for us, returning Venezuelans to Venezuela is the worst option. That should not happen.”
Venezuelans have been fleeing their country, once among the wealthiest in Latin America largely because of its vast oil reserves, to escape economic misery and political repression.
Many people face a long list of travails in the country, including meager salaries, an inadequate health care system, power cuts and gasoline shortages. Then there are the human rights abuses committed by the state — torture, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances — that human rights groups have documented.
For many Venezuelans, the only option is to leave and try to make the risky and long journey to the United States. The dangers were underscored on Friday when a bus carrying dozens of mostly Venezuelan migrants crashed in southern Mexico, killing at least 18 people.
Venezuelans are the second largest group of migrants encountered at the southern U.S. border and the biggest nationality crossing the Darién Gap.
Unlawful border crossings of Venezuelans into the U.S. reached record-high levels in the 2023 fiscal year, with more than 262,600 nationwide encounters registered until August, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
Still, Biden administration officials have defended the decision to begin deporting Venezuelans, saying that it is consistent with the U.S. government’s efforts to carry out a humane, safe and orderly immigration strategy.
“We’re charged with taking coordinated actions to try to stabilize flows, to expand regular pathways, to humanely manage all of our borders,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during a news conference in Mexico Thursday.
Biden administration officials also noted that the U.S. already sends back people to other troubled countries.
“People who cross our border illegally are subject to consequences and that consequence includes direct repatriation,” said Blas Núñez-Neto, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy.
Speaking at a briefing on Friday, he said that in the past year about 130,000 Venezuelans have been provided legal entry into the United States.
“I need to be frank: those direct repatriations are obviously made now to Venezuela, but also to other countries that have complicated situations, such as Haiti, Cuba and other countries around the world,” he said.
But the situation in Venezuela is so dire with little promise of improvement anytime soon that deportations may have little effect.
“The threat of deportation will not stop Venezuelans from wanting a future for themselves and their families,” said Rafael Uzcátegui, general coordinator of the Venezuela Program Education-Action on Human Rights, adding that forcibly returning people fleeing poverty will only “put them at risk again.”
In Maracaibo, the parents of a 12-year-old boy with diabetes were making plans to start their trip to the United States on Saturday morning. The treatment the boy needs has become too expensive in Venezuela, said his father, who asked not to be identified fearing it with would put him on the radar of U.S. border authorities.
But Ms. Urribarrí, who has an accounting degree and has struggled to find a job, said that, for now, she and her daughter will stay in Venezuela.
“Just yesterday I received the child’s passport and today I find out about this,” she said. “Maybe it is a sign that we are not going to see my daughter’s father anymore — and that hurts me a lot.”