MEXICO CITY - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday urged the United States and Venezuela to restore relations, saying an agreement may be on the horizon as he pressed the United States to allow more Venezuelans to enter.

The United States last week announced a plan to grant up to 24,000 Venezuelans humanitarian entry via air amid efforts to deter increasing border crossings driven by economic hardship in Venezuela.

Under the policy, which was crafted with Mexico, the United States can also expel back over the border Venezuelans trying to cross illegally, a move that has faced criticism from the Catholic Church and human rights groups.

U.S. Border Patrol on Friday reported a record 2.2 million encounters with migrants along the border with Mexico in fiscal year 2022, which ended in September.

Since the plan was enacted on Oct. 12, encounters of Venezuelans on the border have decreased more than 80%, U.S. officials said in a call with reporters Friday afternoon.

Mexican officials are eager for Washington and Caracas to improve ties to alleviate the economic situation in Venezuela and to facilitate migrant returns.

"Relations between the government of the United States and Venezuela need to be restored," Lopez Obrador told a news conference. "I know they're working towards an agreement."

A U.S. National Security Council spokesperson said U.S. policy towards Venezuela had not changed.

Before the new plan was announced, Venezuelans who crossed illegally into the United States - which broke diplomatic relations with Caracas in 2019 - were often allowed to stay because it was difficult to send them back.

Since the policy was enacted, several thousand Venezuelans who entered the United States illegally have been returned to Mexico.

Lopez Obrador urged the United States to expand the Venezuela humanitarian access permits beyond 24,000 people.

"They're not enough," Lopez Obrador said. "We're going to be asking that they give out more." Earlier this week, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he was confident Washington would increase the number.

An official for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, said it was not ruling out expanding the program "in coming months."

Arturo Rocha, a Mexican foreign ministry official, said on Twitter on Friday the United States had already received more than 7,500 applications through the program, and that 100 flights from Venezuela had been approved so far.

U.S. officials declined to confirm the number of applications received or flights scheduled so far.

Over 150,000 Venezuelans were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2021 and August 2022, more than triple the number in the entire 2021 fiscal year, U.S. data show.

The Church in Mexico said on Friday it was concerned about the "humanitarian crisis" facing Venezuelans in Mexico, which it described as a "product of political agreements between the governments of Mexico and the United States."

Human Rights Watch also criticized the new policy, saying it was likely to benefit only a "select few" granted entry to the United States, while harming many more forced back to Mexico.

(Reporting by Raul Cortes, Valentine Hilaire, Isabel Woodford and Kylie Madry; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson, Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Christian Plumb, Bill Berkrot, Rosalba O'Brien and Lincoln Feast.)