ROME – A Venezuelan archbishop has appealed to the United States to reverse a recent crackdown on entry into the country by Venezuelans seeking asylum, most of whom are fleeing persecution, violence and economic crisis in their homeland.

Speaking to Crux, Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje of Maracaibo, Venezuela, who also serves as president of Caritas Latin America and the Caribbean, made an appeal on behalf of these migrants, saying just a short time ago in the United States, “There was total openness.”

“Venezuelan migrants could arrive at the border and deliver themselves to the migration police, and the migration police would do a revision for six or seven days. Then, they could calmly enter the United States. Now, there are restrictions, it’s not possible to enter,” he said.

Under the new policy, the only way for a Venezuelan to get into the US is to have someone already living in the country sponsor them, assuming responsibility for their financial and housing needs.

The change, Azuaje said, means that “many people who were already on the way were barred,” and have been deported to Mexico, some to Panama, or other countries in Latin America.

“It caused a conflict, because they can’t return because they don’t have enough money to return,” he said, saying thousands are “totally blocked, they can’t go north, nor to Venezuela.”

Calling this “a very serious” problem “that must be resolved,” Azuaje said the Catholic Church through its local Caritas branches is trying to intervene on behalf of stranded migrants, so they can either gain entry to their destination country or be helped to return to Venezuela.

Political turmoil and social and economic instability in Venezuela have led to a massive humanitarian crisis, caused largely by mismanagement and corruption, in which there is a shortage of basic necessities such as food, medicine, and essential services. Inflation rates have soared, and violence has become rampant in some areas of the country.

In recent years, 7.1 million Venezuelans have left as a result of the country’s instability, marking the largest displacement crisis in Latin America’s recent history, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than 970,000 Venezuelans are seeking asylum outside of the country, while around 2.4 million are living under other legal forms of stay within the Americas. To date, just 200,000 Venezuelans have been recognized as refugees.

A handful of countries have borne the brunt of the Venezuelan exodus, hosting roughly 80 percent of Venezuelan asylum seekers and refugees, meaning roughly 5 million people.

In March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration issued a restrictive new policy called “Title 42,” the ostensible goal of which was to prevent infected people from entering the US.

Since that policy was enacted, the US government has used it to reject asylum claims at the border, conducting “turn-backs” that many have criticized as illegal, since, according to official US policy, anyone has the right to present themselves for asylum and to enter the country while their request is being evaluated.

Under the Biden administration, Title 42 was largely enforced with asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, while Venezuelans were allowed to enter to pursue their cases. After a recent strain in relations with the Venezuelan government, however, that door as of last month is closed.

Mexico has agreed to take in Venezuelans who arrive at ports of entry into the US without authorization. The U.S. government has agreed to grant some 24,000 humanitarian visas to Venezuelans seeking entry, but that agreement does not apply to those who arrive at U.S. – Mexican border, who are all being sent to Mexico.

Many have accused the Biden administration of expanding Title 42 to essential fast-track deportations, specifically of Venezuelan nationals.

Most of the migrants who arrive at the border, including thousands who were already on their way before the change was announced, have exhausted their savings paying traffickers and passage fees along the way, and have no money left to travel home, or anywhere else.

Azuaje said Caritas and other organizations such as the La Casa de Paso, a temporary shelter for asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border, are providing frontline humanitarian aid, and are assisting stranded migrants in finding legal avenues to gain entry into a country ready to welcome them.

“It can be Venezuela or any other country in the south that can welcome them,” Azuaje said, saying there has been little to no discussion on how to resolve the problem of stranded migrants among government leaders.

The real problem, he said, is that “Venezuelans don’t find possibilities for the future inside the country.”

“Formerly with a salary, with an income, with a mother and father in the family, they could maintain their children and they could look to the future. Today, they cannot,” he said, saying inflation rates have reached 125 percent, and the value of Venezuelan currency is tanking.

Azuaje made an appeal to leaders of nations where Venezuelans are stranded, asking for humanitarian aid, and for the government to look at them as “people who have left everything to look for a new life situation but have found that they will not arrive at their goal.”

“Because of this, they are people who are suffering a lot, and they are alone. So, they are people who also really need the help of the local government,” he said.

Azuaje’s appeal comes as Venezuela’s government and opposition leaders have taken a cautious step outside of their longstanding stalemate by signing an agreement to find a way out of the country’s social crisis.

During talks in Mexico, with Norway serving as mediator, the two sides issued a joint statement over the weekend requesting that billions of dollars frozen abroad be released to a UN-managed fund supporting social projects involving education, healthcare, and food aid.

The agreement has prompted nations with sanctions against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, including the United States, to indicate openness to resuming business. The US has already authorized oil company Chevron to resume some activities in Venezuela.

Still, no progress has yet been made on the critical question of presidential elections, set for 2024, so what the long-term impact of this agreement will be and whether it improves life for citizens, and therefore the migration crisis, is yet to be seen.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen