The new policy came in response to a significant increase in the number of Venezuelans arriving at the border. They are now second only to Mexicans among the nationalities crossing there.
Because Cuicas was deported on October 13, just before the official launch of the visa scheme this week, he is eligible to apply for a visa under the scheme. Venezuelans who apply online, find a US sponsor and meet other requirements could then travel directly to the United States if they received a visa.
On Friday, US and Mexican officials provided an update on the program: 7,500 applications were being processed and the first 100 Venezuelans had been cleared to fly. Biden administration officials said about 150 Venezuelans are crossing the border daily from Mexico, up from about 1,200 before the policy was announced Oct. 12.
“My dream is to be there (in the United States) to make a new life,” said Cuicas, a 31-year-old man who left behind his wife and two young children. Returning is not an option, he said. “There is no future, there is no work.”
While Cuicas is optimistic about his chances of enrolling in the US program, observers have pointed out that the number of visas offered is miniscule compared to demand. In September alone, US Customs and Border Protection reported more than 33,000 encounters with Venezuelans at the border.
For Venezuelans already en route to the US-Mexico border, the announcement came as a shock. For some like Cuicas, there was still hope of entering the United States legally, but for others it added new uncertainty to what lasted for months or even years.
In Mexico City, groups of Venezuelans circulate between shelters, a bus station north of the city and the offices of the Mexican asylum agency, where around 30 people are sleeping rough, waiting to begin their administrative formalities.
Darío Arévalo found himself separated from his family for the first time in his life and lived in a shelter. For reasons he said he did not know, US authorities in El Paso, a Texas border town, allowed six members of his family to enter, but sent him back to Mexico.
The 20-year-old is learning to live on his own and is thinking about returning to Venezuela, a country struggling with economic and political crises that have driven more than 7 million people out of the country.
“It’s the first time that I’ve been separated from them, that I’ve been alone,” he said. He will try to scrape together enough money to return to Venezuela, a place he hasn’t lived in four years since his family emigrated to Pereira in neighboring Colombia.
Even though Venezuela finally emerged last year from more than four years of hyperinflation, it still suffers from one of the highest inflations in the world and its economy remains precarious. The poor have little purchasing power, which has spurred another wave of migration.
The initial exodus began in 2015, as thousands of people fled the worst political, economic and social crisis the oil-producing country has seen in more than a century.
Before the Venezuelan deal was announced last week, Mexico was only willing to receive migrants from certain Central American countries deported from the United States.
The Biden administration is expanding an authority used under the Trump administration to prevent migrants arriving at the border from seeking asylum, deporting them under a public health order known as Title 42 that has been used for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outside the offices of the Mexican Asylum Agency in Mexico City, Jonathan Castellanos, 29, is one of the Venezuelans sleeping on the sidewalk after being deported from the United States. He said his mother and three children were back in Venezuela, but he had no plans to return.
After living in Chile and Colombia for six years, he migrated north and reached the Texas border in late September. He was expelled last week along with 95 other Venezuelans.
Castellanos said Mexican authorities have already granted him a humanitarian permit that would allow him to seek employment and housing, joining the approximately 140,000 Venezuelans currently living in Mexico.
Cuicas, on the other hand, said he would not seek asylum in Mexico because he feared it would hurt his chances of getting the US visa.
Castellanos said he didn’t have time for that. “My dream is to come to the United States, but I haven’t achieved it…life goes on and I can’t stop,” he said. “I have to move on and find a way to work, to produce to help my children in Venezuela.”