By Moncho Torres
Panama City, Apr 11 (EFE).- The Secretary of Homeland Security of the United States, Alejandro Mayorkas, warned Tuesday that migrants who try to reach US territory through illegal avenues would be sent back.
Mayorkas, who held a meeting on Tuesday in the Panamanian capital with the foreign ministers of Colombia and Panama to discuss irregular migration through the dangerous Darién jungle, which marks the border between the two Latin American countries, said in an interview with EFE that there was no alternative to the legal route.
“There’s a very important message to send, in addition to the fact that we are building lawful pathways, so people do not have to risk their lives in the Darién and that is that we are enforcing our laws at the border,” the US official said.
“It is so tragic to see people risk their lives, take the dangerous journey, suffer so much trauma, put their life savings in the hands of smugglers who only seek profit, only to be returned,” he added.
The Darién Gap is one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes, due to the mountainous terrain, the presence of criminal gangs and the lack of drinking water.
Despite the dangers it poses, this year alone, some 400,000 migrants are expected to cross the jungle, almost twice the more than 248,000 who did so in 2022.
In the first three months of 2023, some 87,390 migrants crossed the Darién Gap, seven times more than the same period in 2022.
“Those are the individuals, the human beings that actually remained alive to tell you of the trauma of the journey. We also think of the people who did not make it safely. It is exactly why we are building lawful pathways for people to be able to come to the United States in a safe and orderly way to seek a better life as our laws provide,” Mayorkas explained.
He highlighted as “the most powerful example of the success” of this legal route the creation of a humanitarian permit program for nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The measure has led to a 95 percent reduction in arrests of people from these countries at the border.
“We have already received thousands and thousands of people this way,” Mayorkas said, adding that the program can reach 30,000 humanitarian permits a month or “360,000 people a year.”
He also revealed that the US is “expanding” legal avenues, both through its refugee program and humanitarian permits for nationals of those four countries facing economic or political instability.
“We will be unveiling in the next few weeks additional pathways that people must take” in order to travel to the US legally, Mayorkas said.
The Secretary of Homeland Security also recalled that migrants have other ways of traveling legally to the US, such as limited-period visas for seasonal, agricultural or non-agricultural workers, in order to “earn money lawfully and send remittances back to their families in the countries of their origin.”
In addition, next month US President Joe Biden’s administration will lift the controversial Title 42, a public health measure imposed by the government of former President Donald Trump to allow the quick expulsion of migrants at the border.
“We are concerned that there may be an increase in the level of migration” due to the lifting of that measure, Mayorkas acknowledged, but his advisers recalled that the country’s immigration law, which is established in Title 8, will remain fully in force.
During his meeting with EFE, Mayorkas was accompanied by Samantha Power, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and former US ambassador to the UN, who highlighted the important role played by countries that were originally meant to be only a point of transit for migrants.
Colombia “is hosting more than two million Venezuelans (…) a very important, very laudable decision to offer temporary protection status to those Venezuelans” she said.
“When that happened, USAID rushed to support the Colombian government to establish that system, you know, the registration, the mechanics but also to support the incoming Venezuelans to make sure that they were not over burdening the communities to which they were coming,” Power said.
“We’re now dedicating more than $200 million a year to that today. I announced as well that we’re looking for an additional $34 million,” she added.
The official said that it was the US’ “responsibility” to come to the support of those countries south of the Darién Gap, such as Colombia, but also Ecuador or Peru, “who are doing their best to absorb these populations” of migrants.
For Mayorkas, leaving one’s country due to political or economic reasons is not something alien.
A native of Cuba, he came to the US with his parents and sister as a “political refugee” when he was a child.
“It was the second time, by the way, my mother in her life was a refugee,” after having fled the Nazis in Europe, he said.
“I very well understand the fragility of life, the vulnerability of people, the importance of humanitarian relief and in the service of that fragility, in the service of that vulnerability, we build lawful pathways and we urge people not to take the risk that costs so very much,” he said.
“But it’s also very important to remember that we are not alone in this. That the challenge of migration that our region is experiencing is a challenge to which we must all respond together,” he added. EFE