The Contrasting Management of Venezuelan Mass Migration in the Americas

While Chile deported more than a hundred Venezuelans, and other countries reinforced their borders, Colombia provides its brand of Temporary Protection Status to Venezuelan migrants, similar to the one promised by Joe Biden

Photo: Reuters

Venezuelan Mass Migration: a Fait Accompli

The international community is becoming aware that not even the pandemic is going to stop Venezuelans from leaving their country again. 

In the last months, displacement restarted, even with the confinement measures and the closed borders; with the hope of regime change already waning, and the increasing effects of shortages, hyperinflation, and collapse of public services, millions of people are forced to at least consider leaving their nation to survive and send remittances to their families. Even without savings or documents.

Every receiving country is now dealing with this, according to several practical and political factors that are different for every place. The problem, then, can’t be approached without considering some key points:

  • Almost all countries in South America and the Caribbean are more used to producing migrants than they are to receiving them. Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador are quite used to having millions of their nationals abroad, but have no historical experience of getting an influx of migrants in the scale of the Venezuelan mass migration that started in 2017. They’re simply unprepared.
  • The economic hardships of the pandemic increase the resistance of any society to share its diminishing public resources and employment opportunities with foreigners. Vaccination and hospital beds are part of those limited resources, which usually prioritize nationals.
  • There are many differences in resources and political stances in Venezuela’s neighboring countries. One thing is the tiny Trinidad, where the government is a Maduro ally and where xenophobia is a deterrent for migration, and another thing is the vast Brazil, where Venezuelans are a manageable group amid 200 million people. And then there’s Colombia, still dragging the effects of its long armed conflict, and currently home to about 1.7 million Venezuelans.
  • There’s a wide gap between poor, stressed countries that Venezuelans can reach on foot (or on boats), and countries like the United States and Canada. 

Colombia: Generosity or Pragmatism?

On February 8th, the Colombian government announced Temporary Protection Status (ETP, for its acronym in Spanish) for all Venezuelans living in that country without a regular immigration status (with the exception of people convicted of criminal offenses and some other cases). It provides Venezuelans in Colombia with papers and eligibility for ten-year residency permits. Presumably, it will also make life easier for those with weaker permits (like the Special Permanence Permit) and provides a clear pathway to citizenship (after five years, they can become permanent residents, and after five more they can apply for citizenship).

This measure has no precedent in the recent and intense history of Venezuelan migration: it’s the amplest gesture of protection (in terms of reach and depth) that any country has had so far, including Brazil’s Operaçao Acolhida and the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) that Trump signed before leaving office.

The democratic responsibility visa that used to serve Venezuelans has now been revoked, and those who were undergoing the process since before the pandemic to enter Chile, have been left with little to no legal options, even as tourists.

First, it must be understood that this isn’t a politically popular measure in Colombia. As Manuel Rueda points out, a recent Gallup poll revealed that 68% of the Colombians surveyed have an unfavorable opinion of Venezuelan migrants. Plus, as many countries in the region, Colombia is already stressed by the economic pressures of the pandemic and the remaining political violence. What drove President Iván Duque to grant this measure? Why would the political heir of Álvaro Uribe, clearly on the right-wing, extend such a gesture in a country that had been making headlines for xenophobia agitated by political figures like the mayor of Bogota?

The answer may go beyond simply opening arms to the millions of citizens fleeing the country ruled by his regional adversary, Nicolás Maduro; it’s smart crisis management. By regularizing these people, Colombia will be able to have better control of the variables involved in the influx of so many Venezuelans, and access to the international funding required to provide them with vaccines and shelter—handling the enormous demand for health services that vulnerable migration demands. With a protection status, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in Colombia will have access to more formal jobs that allow socioeconomic insertion in Colombian society, which also means insertion into the local tax environment and a lower risk of getting absorbed by criminal activities. 

Hopefully, this move by the Colombian government will cause a domino effect in the region. 

Different Logistics When Facing a Tragedy

Colombia’s ETP quickly received the nod from the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who commended Iván Duque, tweeting that “the U.S. stands with Colombia in support of refugees and migrants as we also work to rebuild and expand our humanitarian programs worldwide.” This expansion of U.S. humanitarian programs includes a major immigration reform, which according to OAS Director of Inclusion, Betilde Muñoz Pogossian, is surely to encounter pushback in the American Congress. 

We recently spoke with Betilde and with immigration lawyer Julio Enríquez, and both agreed that the DED signed by former president Trump in his last day in office is a great piece of news for Venezuelans in the U.S., while still coming short regarding the level of protection that the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) could grant. First, DED is not a status, and it could be easily revoked. Although it also creates the possibility or work permits for migrants, it requires a separate structure to process such permits which currently doesn’t exist. Compared to the Colombian ETP, which extends for ten years, the DED’s 18 months fail to acknowledge that this is a long term migration crisis. The TPS, mind you, usually has similar term limitations. 

In Betilde’s opinion, we’re likely to see a TPS for Venezuelans soon, not only because a wider immigration reform is a long way down the road, but because the TPS could be easily enacted by an Executive Order from President Joe Biden. Here’s our conversation on the matter, in our podcast in Spanish La Conversa:

Meanwhile, in Chile, the Piñera administration is reacting with the police and the military to a surge in the Venezuelan influx from the borders with Peru and Bolivia. With reinforced security in border towns and the deportation of over a hundred migrants (dressed in biosafety suits, in an Air Force plane), it was like the E.T. movie climax and a Trump-style immigration gesture in the arid Chilean north. Piñera also asked the Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian Migration Police departments to join forces in stopping irregular migration.

Migratory patterns did change during the first months of the pandemic, but they’re now showing a bigger flow than before, leading to the collapse of border towns which have to deal with their own problems of food distribution and other basic services affected by the quarantine measures. Also, while the militarization of borders and the deportation of Venezuelan and Colombian migrants is taking over the headlines of the region, Piñera’s government has also hampered the regular means to enter the country. The democratic responsibility visa program that used to serve Venezuelans has now been revoked, and those who were undergoing the process since before the pandemic to enter Chile, have been left with little to no legal options, even as tourists.

In Ecuador, the first round of presidential elections was preceded by plenty of political fearmongering about the chavista model, with some anti-Venezuelan messages added in. That’s the atmosphere in countries like Trinidad and Peru, too, which face the realities of Venezuelan migration with lessened political stability, diminished resources, and high anxiety amid their stressed populations—a context where the pandemic can be used to turn Venezuelan migrants into scapegoats of sorts. 

But the problem remains: these migrants won’t just disappear. Sooner or later, everyone in South America will have to look at what Colombia just did and understand the obvious: the elements that expel Venezuelans from their borders are going nowhere for the foreseeable future and this is a region unlike the Mediterranean Sea or the South Pacific, where you can hold migrants in islands and look the other way.