By Lizbeth Diaz and Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Voluntary returns of Venezuelan migrants in Mexico by plane back to their homeland are likely to begin in the next few days, four people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
Mexico is grappling with a sharp increase in Venezuelans, both from those arriving on its southern border and due to thousands of expulsions from the United States following a deal last week aimed at curbing the flow of people.
Under a bilateral plan announced on Oct. 12, Washington said it would grant up to 24,000 Venezuelans humanitarian access to the United States by air. It also enabled U.S. officials to expel to Mexico those caught trying to cross illegally by land.
The voluntary returns to Venezuela by air should begin this week, according to two Mexican officials familiar with the matter.
It was not immediately clear how many people would be returned on the first flight, nor how many journeys were planned. One official said there could be several flights.
Mexico’s foreign ministry and the government’s National Migration Institute (INM) did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Venezuelan embassy in Mexico could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Biden administration has come under pressure to curb illegal immigration after a record number of border crossings this year. Venezuelans seeking a better future away from their economically-battered homeland have helped fuel that trend.
The Mexican government said on Oct. 12 that Venezuelans entering its territory from that day onward would not be allowed to apply from Mexico for access to the United States by air.
Those Venezuelans who have entered Mexico illegally and want to stay in the country will have to request asylum, according to a Mexican official familiar with the matter. However, if they do that, they cannot apply for U.S. asylum, the official added.
That could mean voluntary return to Venezuela is more attractive to some than staying in Mexico, the official said.
For the past four years, Venezuela’s government has provided special flights to its citizens abroad who lack the means to pay the fare. It is currently also offering low-cost commercial flights home from Mexico on the state airline Conviasa, according to a person familiar with the matter.
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz, Dave Graham and Ana Isabel Martinez; editing by Richard Pullin)