Six years ago, the four Contrera siblings — two sisters and two brothers — left their native Venezuela to move to Ecuador, joining a mass exodus from a country riven by economic distress and political upheaval.
Last month, the four decided to relocate again, this time thousands of miles away to the United States, where tens of thousands of their compatriots have been admitted in recent months.
They traveled through Mexico and last week presented themselves to U.S. border authorities in El Paso. After being briefly detained, the brothers were released — they joined another sister in New Jersey — while the sisters were sent back across the border to Ciudad Juarez.
“It seems like we were chosen with others to be returned completely at random,” said the eldest of the siblings, Neymar Contrera, 28. “Now my brothers are in New Jersey, chilling out, and we are stuck here in Mexico.”
They are among the first families affected by a major policy shift on the border.
U.S. and Mexican authorities announced Wednesday that Mexico had agreed to accept some Venezuelans expelled from the United States under Title 42, a pandemic measure enacted during the Trump administration that allows U.S. authorities to turn away migrants without giving them an opportunity to file for asylum.
Previously, Mexico had generally only agreed to take back citizens of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.
In recent months, the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have been sending Venezuelans and other border-crossers to East Coast cities by bus, increasing the political pressure on the Biden administration to do something.
The Democratic New York mayor, Eric Adams, declared a state of emergency this month, saying that an influx of migrants, mostly from Latin America, was overwhelming the city’s ability to house and care for them.
On Thursday, more than 700 Venezuelans were sent back to Mexico from various points along the nearly 2,000-mile border, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Officials have not said publicly whether Mexico has placed at limit on the number of Venezuelans it will accept. Between Wednesday and Friday, about 600 arrived in Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, according to the Mexican immigration agency.
Until now, U.S. officials have not had an easy way to expel Venezuelans arriving at the border. Washington cut off diplomatic relations with the government of President Nicolas Maduro in 2019, so it cannot send them back home.
And with Mexico refusing to accept the migrants, most were being promptly released and permitted to continue into the United States after indicating that they would file for political asylum or some other form of relief from deportation.
As word spread, the numbers arriving each month began to climb — from about 15,000 per month for much of 2022 to 25,000 in August to 33,000 in September.
Ironically, the Biden administration has been fighting in federal court to end the Title 42 program. But now that the administration has persuaded Mexico to accept Venezuelans, it is willing to use the controversial law to expel them.
Immigrant advocates in the United States assailed the administration’s decision.
“Given the Biden administration’s stated intention to end Title 42 expulsions, it is outrageous that the administration would instead move to expand the Trump-era policy and deny Venezuelans access to the asylum system,” Jennifer Babaie of the International Refugee Assistance Project said in a statement last week.
The Venezuelans sent back will join large numbers of other migrants — Central Americans, Cubans, Haitians and others — biding their time in Mexico in hopes of entering the United States at some point. Many have reported being robbed and kidnapped in Mexican border towns, where gangs prey on migrants.
Most Venezuelans arrived here after perilous overland journeys of thousands of miles, including treks through the Darien Gap, the dense jungle that joins Colombia and Panama.
In August, Mexican authorities detained a total of 42,408 migrants — including 16,881 Venezuelans. It was the first time on record that Venezuelans exceeded Central Americans.
Under pressure from Washington, Mexico began mandating in January that Venezuelans entering the country obtain visas beforehand. That cut down on the number of U.S.-bound Venezuelans flying into Mexico but increased the ranks of those arriving overland — including the four Contrera siblings.
In Ecuador, they were part of a large Venezuelan diaspora that stretched across South America. When the pandemic struck, economies tanked, and many of those expatriates lost their jobs and faced growing resentment from local populations.
That spurred many to leave for the United States. The siblings set out on Sept. 12 to join their other sister in New Jersey.
Contrera said U.S. border officials never explained why her brothers were allowed to proceed while she and her sister were turned back.
“We don’t know what we are going to do,” she said outside a migrant aid center near the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez. “We are waiting to see if we can appeal or something.”
Special correspondent Minjares reported from Ciudad Juarez. Times staff writers McDonnell and Aleaziz reported from Mexico City and Healdsburg, Calif., respectively. Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez contributed from Mexico City.