2 p.m. Oct. 13: This story has been updated to include comments from El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz and the Hope Border Institute and information on how you can donate to a migrant fund.

U.S. immigration officers will begin returning Venezuelan migrants to Mexico if they cross between ports of entry, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.

The policy shift likely will have immense implications in El Paso, which has seen a dramatic increase in migrants from Venezuela crossing to El Paso from Juárez in recent weeks. 

“This decision will provide some much needed decompression as we manage this humanitarian crisis so that we may treat every individual with compassion while following the law, and as all of us would like to be treated,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said in a statement.

The Biden administration also announced a new effort that could let 24,000 Venezuelans enter the country legally. It also announced a joint effort with Mexico to stop irregular migration of Venezuelans who have been moving northward in massive numbers from South America.

“These actions make clear that there is a lawful and orderly way for Venezuelans to enter the United States, and lawful entry is the only way,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “Those who attempt to cross the southern border of the United States illegally will be returned to Mexico and will be ineligible for this process in the future. Those who follow the lawful process will have the opportunity to travel safely to the United States and become eligible to work here.” 

The plan to return Venezuelan migrants to Mexico marks a sharp change for the Biden administration, which had criticized similar policies by the Trump administration. Biden ended Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy and the administration has said it wanted to wind down Title 42, a public health policy that allowed the United States to expel migrants without legal process during the pandemic. Courts have blocked attempts to limit the use of Title 42.

Republicans have been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of migration issues and have made it one of their key issues for the Nov. 8 mid-term election.

Immigration advocacy groups welcomed the announcement that the Biden administration would use a humanitarian parole process to allow up to 24,000 Venezuelans to enter the country legally. But they were sharply critical of the plan to use the Title 42 expulsion policy to turn back asyslum seekers at the border.

“This will undoubtedly and disproportionately impact Venezuelans who do not have close U.S. ties, but who are nonetheless deserving of due process and protection,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “That their expulsions will be cloaked in public health concerns just weeks after President Biden declared the pandemic ‘over’ is deeply disturbing.”

El Paso-Juárez has become one of the main crossing points since August for Venezuelans seeking to enter the United States. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement released more than 6,800 migrants into the El Paso community last week – most of them Venezuelans – a four-fold increase in just six weeks, according to a dashboard maintained by the city of El Paso.

A group of Venezuelan migrants pauses to document their arrival on American soil after crossing the Rio Grande on Sept. 19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The influx included hundreds of migrants released to the streets. For several days, they created a large outdoor encampment near the Downtown Greyhound bus station. City officials said  immigration agents have not released any migrants to the streets in the past week.

The new policy will likely further strain shelters in Juárez – many of which are already at capacity.

“We will find a way to shelter as many of them as we can here and our network of 17 shelters, but we may end up seeing more migrants living in the streets,” said Lilia Barraza, who with her husband Rodolfo for the past four years has run the Albergue para Migrantes Solus Christus in Juárez.

Lilia Barraza said with the expected rise in need, she’s hopeful more people, churches and businesses donate to area shelters.

“We can’t do this alone,” she said.

In response to the new policy, El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz and the Hope Border Institute on Thursday announced a $100,000 commitment to help Venezuelan migrants in Juárez. The money will assist two 24-hour shelters for migrant families and women, help shelters and parishes provide meals to migrants, and provide health care and mental health therapy services.

The El Paso Catholic Diocese and Hope Border Institute will also set up a parish-based plan in El Paso for migrants who are able to come into the city, officials said in a news release denouncing the change in policy.

“This is an abuse of a public health order, used now to deter asylum seekers in need of protection at the border. There is no moral or legal justification for this decision, and it will only add to the unbearable pressure on our sister city of Ciudad Juárez,” the groups said in the statement.

Donations to help the migrants can be made through the Border Refugee Assistance Fund, which has raised more than $400,000 for humanitarian needs along the border since 2019.

El Paso officials have arranged more than 240 charter buses since early September that have sent more than 12,000 migrants to New York and Chicago. City officials have said they believe their costs for migrant care and transportation will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but there is uncertainty about how much of transportation costs will be covered.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the U.S. and Mexico agreed to a plan for new migration checkpoints, additional resources and personnel, joint targeting of human smuggling organizations, and expanded information sharing related to transit nodes, hotels, stash houses, and staging locations.

The announcement also said the United States would offer additional security assistance to regional partners to address migration challenges in the Darién Gap in Colombia and Panama, a dangerous jungle area that is in the main path for Venezuelans making their way to Mexico and the United States from South America.

About a quarter of Venezuela’s estimated 28 million people have left the country in recent years as its economy collapsed under a leftist regime that has been shunned by much of the world. Only war-torn Syria and Ukraine have seen larger population displacements in recent years.

Many Venezuelans arriving in the United States lack relatives or other potential sponsors, making it more difficult for them to move on from the border to other U.S. communities.

The U.S. and Venezuela have not had formal diplomatic ties since 2019.

Venezuela has refused to accept its nationals expelled under Title 42 by the United States, and Mexico has largely declined to accept Venezuelans until now. That has given U.S. officials little choice but to release Venezuelan migrants while immigration courts decide their cases.

El Paso native Cindy Ramirez has spent most of her career in journalism, with some stints in public and media relations and military reporting. She's covered everything from education to local government...