Miguel Peñaranda, his wife and two stepchildren believed the long odyssey that began seven years ago when they left Venezuela had ended when they reached the United States on Oct. 6. But it turned out that some of their worst troubles had only begun.
After turning themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso, the Peñarandas were placed in separate cells, for men and women, for what they assumed would be a day or two of processing their initial request for asylum.
Mr. Peñaranda, 44, and his 18-year-old stepson were released three days later in Brownsville, Texas — but there was no sign of his wife or 20-year-old stepdaughter.
An agonizing week went by before Mr. Peñaranda received a call from his wife, Heyllyn Yepez. “My love, I am so relieved to hear your voice,” he recalled telling her. She was sobbing on the phone. “We are in Mexico!” she said. “We were deported and sent to Acapulco.”
The family was one of many who have been disrupted by the Biden administration’s abrupt closure of the border last month to the large numbers of Venezuelan migrants who had been making their way to the United States this year.
The decision to expel Venezuelans under a pandemic-era policy that allows swift expulsions, previously applied mainly to Mexicans and Central Americans, has had the unintended effect of trapping many Venezuelan families on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
A Venezuelan man in Utah had earned enough money to send for his wife and three young children, only to see them held back in Mexico when the expansion of the expulsion policy was announced. A Venezuelan woman who arrived in New York in September with her husband and two sons said that her mother and sisters were stranded in Costa Rica and unable to join her if the border remained closed.
“They can’t go back home, because they’d have to go through the jungle. And they can’t come here,” said the woman, Loiseth Colmenares, 30. “Most of the families are like that — we had family members on the way, and now we can’t bring them.
“We’re losing hope of reuniting with our families,” she said.
Three Republican governors highlighted what their party has called the “Biden border crisis” by transporting thousands of migrants from the border to cities like New York, Washington and Chicago, where unprepared city officials and nonprofits had to scramble to find shelter and other services. But the Biden administration created a new cycle of confusion and anxiety when it suddenly barred most Venezuelans from entering — including many who were joining other family members already in the United States.
“It’s not the intentional family separation that happened under Trump, but it is still having a devastating impact on families,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit devoted to the protection of unaccompanied migrant children.
“It is a consequence of immigration policies that are not well thought out,” she said.
The inadvertent family separations are only part of the chaos that has accompanied the arrival of far more Venezuelans than U.S. border facilities were equipped to handle.
The Biden administration has struggled over the past year with the largest influx of unauthorized migration since the mid-2000s. Nearly 200,000 Venezuelans were among the estimated 2.4 million migrant encounters at the border in fiscal year 2022, arriving amid economic, political and climate crises that have compelled people from around the globe to journey to the United States.
In the weeks preceding the new expulsion policy, the pressure on U.S. border facilities had become extreme, creating a tumultuous situation whose dimensions are only now becoming apparent, as migrants allowed into the United States recount their travails.
In some cases, it appears that Border Patrol agents had been sending Venezuelan migrants to seemingly random cities around the country, including Denver, Salt Lake City and Sacramento, where many had no family members or friends to receive them. Aid workers in those cities said some migrants arrived clutching immigration paperwork listing arbitrary local addresses where they had been told that they would find assistance — even though local shelters were not set up to receive them.
Autumn Gonzalez, a volunteer lawyer and board member at NorCal Resist, a nonprofit immigrant network, said eight bewildered migrants showed up in Sacramento in September with an address that they had been told at the border was the location of a shelter. It turned out to be an office building. “It’s gambling with people’s lives,” she said.
Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said Border Patrol agents were asking migrants where they intended to go once they were released from custody. Those who did not know were allowed to provide an address of a nongovernmental organization, he said.
Dairo Gonzalez, who was one of those sent to Denver, said he and his brother, Deuli, had told border authorities in Texas that they had no family in the United States. “The officials picked Denver for us, and that was it,” he said.
Realizing on arrival that the address on their forms was for an administrative building, “We felt completely lost,” said Mr. Gonzalez, 33. “We prayed someone would open their door to us.”
A coalition of nonprofits and faith-based groups in Denver mobilized to open a migrant shelter, and met with city and state officials to secure additional resources. Then the Biden administration extended the expulsion policy, known as Title 42, and the number of Venezuelans allowed into the United States plunged — creating the new problem, still being sorted out, of families separated on both sides of the border.
In Mr. Gonzalez’s case, his niece and her partner became stuck in Mexico when the policy went into effect. “We had to send money for them to buy food, clothes. They had spent everything they had to make the trip,” he said.
He and his brother planned to use their next paycheck to help fund their return as far as Panama, where he said they would be able to stay with a relative.
There have been many such situations.
Rosa Colmenares, 39, who crossed the border on Sept. 16 with her husband and 12-year-old son, has been living in a Marriott Hotel in New York, trying to keep in touch with a cousin who was expelled after crossing the border.
“A lot of people were stopped halfway” when the new policy was adopted, she said. Her mother, she said, is still in Venezuela, and while Ms. Colmenares had planned to send for her once she reached the United States, now she cannot. “I feel sad, honestly,” she said, her voice breaking. “There’s nothing else to do but try to move forward, to work, to try to help her.”
Mr. Miranda, the Homeland Security spokesman, said that there had been no deliberate separation of families, but that there might have been instances where adult family members could not legally be processed or detained together and became separated.
“In cases where that has happened and we become aware of the issue, we take proactive steps to bring such family members back together,” he said in a statement.
Staff members from Kids in Need of Defense, the advocacy group, said some Venezuelans now stranded in Mexico were so desperate that they were trying to send their children alone to safety in the United States, knowing that minors would not be expelled — a situation that creates additional separations.
“We have counseled them on the risks associated with taking this action,” said Megan McKenna, the group’s senior director of public engagement.
Mr. Peñaranda, a car detailer, and his wife, a schoolteacher, said they decided to travel to the United States after their family was denied asylum in Costa Rica, where they had spent six years, among millions of Venezuelans who have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
After crossing the border in El Paso on Oct. 6, Mr. Peñaranda said he and his stepson spent several days in a frigid room and then were handcuffed, shackled and shuffled up the stairs of a plane that flew them to Brownsville, Texas, a border town where they were finally released.
“We thought we would all be together soon,” Mr. Peñaranda said.
Ms. Yepez and her daughter were flown to Laredo, Texas, more than 200 miles from Brownsville, where they were among more than 100 migrants who shared a fetid warehouse, she recalled.
That was about the time when Homeland Security announced, on Oct. 12, that it would begin expelling Venezuelan migrants who had crossed the border without authorization back to Mexico.
Still in the T-shirts, sweatpants and plastic slippers they had received at the border holding facility, and still deprived of their mobile phones, the women were ordered to board a bus.
As the bus lumbered across the bridge over the Rio Grande, they realized where they were headed and were overcome with despair.
In Nuevo Laredo, Mexican authorities transferred them, along with several other Venezuelans, to yet another bus, this one to Acapulco.
“I never, ever could have imagined this happening,” Ms. Yepez said in a phone interview from Mexico. “How can they do this to families? It’s so inhuman.”
Mr. Peñaranda said his family was still considering what to do next. Returning to Venezuela is not an option, and he is not certain that Mexican authorities would allow all of them to remain in Mexico.
“I would have preferred to be sent to China, anywhere, than to be separated,” he said. “I understand this was not the right way to enter the country. But this is not the way to treat people.”
Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.