The Biden administration will allow certain asylum-seekers from crisis-stricken Venezuela to enter the country lawfully if they have a U.S.-based financial sponsor in a bid to deter illegal crossings along the southern border, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Wednesday.

Conversely, Venezuelan migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally could face rapid expulsion to northern Mexico under a recently forged agreement with the Mexican government, senior U.S. government officials told reporters. Previously, Mexican authorities generally did not accept expulsions of Venezuelans. 

Under the sponsorship program, modeled after another Biden administration policy that has allowed tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians to enter the U.S. since April, up to 24,000 Venezuelan migrants will be granted permission to fly to a U.S. airport and live in the country for two years.

Like the Ukrainians welcomed in the U.S. after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, eligible Venezuelan migrants who pass background checks will be granted parole, a humanitarian immigration authority that allows beneficiaries to apply for work permits. Parole, however, does not provide a path to permanent legal status.

In addition to the numerical cap, the sponsorship program for Venezuelans includes several eligibility restrictions, including a ban for migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully after Wednesday’s announcement and those who have been deported from the U.S. in the past five years.

Venezuelans who illegally enter Mexico or Panama after Wednesday will also be disqualified from the sponsorship process, which U.S. officials said is contingent on the Mexican government upholding its commitment to accept the return of migrants from Venezuela who enter the U.S. illegally.

The eligibility rules, a senior U.S. official said, are designed to discourage Venezuelans from embarking on the perilous, multi-country trek across Central America and Mexico that tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants have already undertaken over the past year to reach the U.S.

The trek often includes a days-long journey on foot across Panama’s infamous Darién Gap, a roadless jungle that more than 150,000 migrants, 107,000 of them from Venezuela, have traversed this year, according to Panamanian government statistics. 

“You hear the stories out of the Darién Gap. These journeys across the continent are incredibly dangerous. They’re fueled by human smuggling organizations. We’re seeing loss of life,” a senior U.S. official said. “So, we view this as a humanitarian issue. We want to reduce irregular migration and expand legal pathways.”

Wednesday’s announcement could mark a seismic shift in U.S. border policy for Venezuelan migrants, who have journeyed to the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers over the past year amid their home country’s economic collapse and political turmoil.

Since October 2021, U.S. border officials have processed more than 150,000 Venezuelan migrants, government data show. Up to now, the vast majority of Venezuelan migrants have been released and allowed to pursue asylum claims because the U.S. generally has not been able to expel them to Mexico or Venezuela, where the repressive government in Caracas rejects U.S. deportations. 

But senior U.S. officials said migrants who bypass the new sponsorship process and seek to enter the country unlawfully will face expulsion to Mexico under Title 42, a Trump-era public health order that blocks migrants from seeking asylum. The pandemic-era policy has remained in place due to a federal court order.

“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,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday.

In a statement, the Mexican foreign ministry confirmed the agreement with the Biden administration, saying it will continue “Mexico’s unilateral policy of receiving migrants under Title 42 for humanitarian reasons.”

“Given the current increase in migration and the need for orderly, safe, regular and humane access for migrants in the region, Mexico will temporarily allow some Venezuelan citizens to enter our national territory across the northern border,” the Mexican foreign ministry added.

Those looking to sponsor Venezuelan asylum-seekers will need to submit an online application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Prospective sponsors will be required to undergo background checks and prove they are in the U.S. lawfully and have the financial means to sponsor Venezuelan migrants.

Asked how Venezuelan migrants with no family or friends in the U.S. will find sponsors, a senior U.S. official said the Biden administration will work with the private sector to identify would-be sponsors, noting the aim is to replicate the success of the sponsorship policy for Ukrainians, dubbed Uniting for Ukraine.   

Under Uniting for Ukraine, 67,000 Ukrainians with U.S. sponsors have been granted humanitarian parole to enter the country, DHS figures show. In less than six months, USCIS has received sponsorship requests from over 146,000 U.S.-based individuals.

U.S. officials said they will evaluate the Venezuelan sponsorship program to determine whether to continue it. A version of the policy that was considered internally included migrants from other countries, including Cuba and Nicaragua, which have also seen record numbers of their citizens journey to the U.S., people familiar with the matter said.

“We’re committed to implementing this new process and seeing if it works. And if it does in fact have its intended effect, we may consider in the future whether we can apply it elsewhere,” a U.S. official said.