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Thousands of Venezuelans are stranded in Mexico after the U.S. shut doors to them

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans are stranded south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. recently shut the door to them and is returning most Venezuelans who arrive seeking asylum to Mexico. And now many are camped out on the border just across from El Paso, Texas. KTEP's Angela Kocherga reports.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: On the banks of the Rio Grande, families pass the time together sitting on blankets. They talk. Some share food, but this is hardly a picnic. This sprawling camp has grown to nearly 2,000 people this week. There are no toilets. In some places, it stinks of urine. Some sleep in donated tents, though the nights are getting cold. The migrants call it Little Venezuela.

CARLOS FUENMAYOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Carlos Fuenmayor says he, his wife and 3-year-old daughter don't have money or a country to go back to. They huddled together on a blanket in the dirt.

FUENMAYOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Fuenmayor asks why vulnerable children who could get sick are being sent to Mexico in conditions like this. As he speaks, he looks across the Rio Grande at the big, white tents the U.S. Border Patrol set up to process Venezuelan migrants. For the last few months, more than a thousand went through every day and were allowed into the U.S., where they can seek asylum. That ended about two weeks ago when the Biden administration began returning most Venezuelans to Mexico, like Fuenmayor and his family.

On a blanket next to them, Yusmeli Montilla cries in frustration.

YUSMELI MONTILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Through tears, she says she, her husband and toddler spent two months traveling to the border just to have the door slammed in their faces. She breastfeeds her son Alan, who Montilla says has only one kidney and needs a special diet. The Biden administration will admit up to 24,000 Venezuelans a year on humanitarian parole. But that's just a tiny fraction of those who have crossed the border. In the month of September alone, more than 33,000 Venezuelans arrived in the U.S.

As the number camped here grows, Mexico's foreign minister sent a special envoy this week to help plan a humanitarian response. Most migrants have been sleeping at the border camp, but more are starting to seek refuge from cold nights at shelters.

Some venture out for a few hours during the day to look for work and food, like Juane Luis Colmenares, who sits on the sidewalk with his wife and five kids. They ask for spare change. Colmenares says he tried working at a construction site.

JUANE LUIS COLMENARES: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: But he says once he saw the Mexican workers were getting double what he was paid, the equivalent of $10 a day, he decided it wasn't worth it.

COLMENARES: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: He says hope is the only thing he has left. Earlier this week, in one last hopeful act, he and his family decided to cross the border. They turned themselves in at the big, white Border Patrol tents and, to their surprise, were allowed to stay in the U.S. while they apply for asylum. Immigration officials say they decide who comes into the country on a case-by-case basis. The Colmenares family is trying to scrape together money to get to New York. Meanwhile, the camp on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande is swelling as more Venezuelans arrive daily.

For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in Ciudad Juarez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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