UGA slaying puts spotlight on Venezuelan immigration – and special treatment

In December alone, nearly 47,000 Venezuelan migrants unlawfully crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.

Before being charged with kidnapping and brutally killing a nursing student on the University of Georgia campus, Jose Antonio Ibarra was part of an unprecedented surge of unlawful Venezuelan border crossings into the U.S.

In September 2022, the 26-year-old migrant was among the nearly 34,000 Venezuelan nationals who entered Border Patrol custody after illegally crossing the southern border that month, then a record, according to federal data.

Around that time, the number of migrants apprehended and then released was overwhelming border communities. Big cities in Democrat-run states were also feeling the brunt of the influx, as Texas authorities began providing newcomers free transportation to places like New York City and Chicago.

Some destitute migrants from Venezuela also wound up making their way to Atlanta, influenced by rumors that work here was plentiful. In late August, staff of the Latin American Association (LAA) came across a group of recently-arrived Venezuelan nationals sleeping outside their Brookhaven headquarters. The nonprofit was able to give dozens of migrants temporary accommodation at area hotels. It’s not clear how many Venezuelan migrants settled in Atlanta or Georgia in recent years.

In the months that followed, Venezuelan migration to the U.S. continued to produce jaw-dropping numbers. Both in September and December 2023, roughly 50,000 Venezuelans unlawfully crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, the two highest months on record. In fiscal year 2023, roughly 1 in 10 migrants apprehended at the southern border was Venezuelan.

The scale of the influx reflects the deeply troubled nature of the once-wealthy Latin American country’s recent history. Since the 2010s, more than 7.7 million people have fled Venezuela to escape its authoritarian regime and economic crises – the largest displacement crisis ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. Most Venezuelan migrants settled in countries close to home, but began coming to the U.S. in large numbers after the pandemic upended economic conditions across the region.

For U.S. immigration officials, deporting the Venezuelan migrants encountered at the border has been difficult. Given the lack of diplomatic relations between Washington D.C. and Caracas, Venezuelan authorities have not accepted official U.S. deportations for years. In the fall of 2022, the Biden administration convinced Mexico to take back some migrants from Venezuela who were expelled by the U.S. for crossing the border without authorization, but those numbers have been limited.

To dissuade Venezuelans from attempting to illegally enter, the federal government has rolled out innovative strategies for that group of migrants to come legally instead. In Oct. 2022, the Biden administration unveiled a humanitarian parole program that has allowed Venezuelans to fly into the country if they have U.S. sponsors to support them. Months later, that program was expanded to include migrants from Haiti, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

Starting in early 2023, the administration also created a smartphone app-based avenue for migrants to secure appointments to be processed legally at official ports of entry. These policies led to reductions in the number of Venezuelans apprehended by Border Patrol, but they’ve proven to be only temporary.

Venezuelan migrants who arrived around the same time as Ibarra got a big break in the fall of 2023, when the Biden administration made them eligible for a type of deportation relief known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS). It’s designed to aid migrant populations who can’t safely return to their home countries because of dangerous conditions ranging from armed conflicts to natural disasters. Among the benefits of TPS is immediate eligibility for work authorization — something that other groups of vulnerable migrants typically have to wait months to obtain.

Leaders of cities with high concentrations of Venezuelan migrants had pushed federal authorities to create a new TPS designation because they believed access to work permits would make newcomers self-sufficient. Republican critics worried the new status would spur more Venezuelans to try to come, even though eligibility was limited to Venezuelan nationals who arrived to the country before July 31, 2023.

At the moment, foreign nationals from places like Afghanistan, Cameroon, Haiti, El Salvador, Somalia, Honduras, Sudan and more are benefiting from the same TPS protections. Although individual countries’ TPS designations are meant to be temporary, federal officials can extend them indefinitely. For instance, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have been allowed to live in the U.S. since a series of earthquakes devastated the Central American nation back in 2001.

It is unclear whether Ibarra had received or even applied for TPS before being charged. Anyone with a criminal conviction in the U.S. is ineligible.

Members of the Venezuelan community in Georgia worry that the uproar over Laken Riley’s killing could lead for more restrictions for Venezuelans looking to enter the country.

“Anyone who comes here to do bad things, what they are doing is closing the doors to lots of people who also want to come over, and try to find new opportunities for a better life here,” said Jose Ramos, a Venezuelan migrant who arrived in metro Atlanta in August 2022.

The disturbing act of violence on UGA’s campus is expected to reverberate through much of the 2024 election cycle, as immigration continues to rank among the issues most salient to voters.

On Thursday, both President Biden and former President Donald Trump – who moved to restrict the size of the TPS program while in office – will hold dueling events on the Texas border.

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