The return of the flights marks a significant turning point in U.S. immigration policy. For years, the U.S. did not regularly conduct repatriation flights to Venezuela, given Washington’s strained relationship with Caracas and concerns about human rights abuses by the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
It comes as the Biden administration faces increased political pressure to stem an influx of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. has struggled to stem the flow of migrants fleeing gang violence, political instability and economic malaise in Latin America and other parts of the world. Thousands of migrants, in particular from Venezuela, are apprehended every day by border patrol agents. Since May 2023, 295,000 individuals have been repatriated by the Department of Homeland Security.
The flood of migrants has become a political albatross for Democrats and President Joe Biden, as major U.S. cities have struggled to house new arrivals and provide them with needed social services. This has caused some prominent Democrats in heavily affected states to publicly slam the Biden administration’s response.
In September, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, warned that migration would “destroy” his city. Adams is on a trip to Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador this week and is expected to deliver a stern warning to would-be migrants thinking of coming to the U.S.
On Monday, Illinois’ Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, wrote to Biden warning that the sheer magnitude of the influx is “overwhelming our ability to provide aid to the refugee population,” and said that an absence of federal leadership was creating “an untenable situation for Illinois.”
“The guy’s running for president. He better start paying attention to this,” Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano said Wednesday. “We need to put a framework around this from the feds. We need someone to take charge of this and say, ‘This is what you can expect.’”
The White House has largely defended the administration’s response, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre telling reporters on Wednesday that Biden “has taken action” in “delivering record funding” for border security and increasing the number of border patrol agents and law enforcement at the border.
Speaking at the University of Texas at Austin on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed blame for the situation on an unprecedented multi-country influx of migrants, the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t experienced before.
“It used to be that you would have one crisis at a time — maybe Cuba, maybe Haiti, maybe it was El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, the countries in the so-called Northern Triangle,” Blinken said. “Now it’s all of the above, plus Venezuela, plus Nicaragua, plus Ecuador, plus people coming in through Latin America from parts far away from the United States — Uzbekistan — all coming towards Mexico and then coming toward the United States.”
“And so I think it’s important to understand that this is actually something that is historically of extraordinary proportions,” Blinken continued.
But the border influx has prompted the Biden administration to backtrack somewhat on its approach. On Wednesday evening, the administration announced it would waive 26 federal laws to allow construction of the Trump administration’s proposed border wall to resume in Texas, reneging on a key promise the president made during the 2020 election.
“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a notice posted by the department on the U.S. Federal Register on Wednesday.
Jean-Pierre defended the decision, saying it was needed to spend funds allocated to DHS back in 2019. She also said the administration was still committed to pursuing other solutions it sees as more effective to the situation.
“We believe, and the president has been very clear, even when you asked him, ‘Does a border wall work?’ — he said no, and he’s been very consistent about that,” Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “We believe that we need border technology that is modernized at land ports of entry, and that’s what we want to see and that’s what I can speak to.”
The border wall waivers sparked accusations of hypocrisy from the Biden administration’s detractors.
“President Biden said that it was inhumane, and he was not going to continue building the wall,” Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) said on CNN on Thursday. “This is a political move and people see through it.”
Olivia Alafriz contributed to this report.