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Colombia answers one of the biggest and least funded migrant crises. Would it work in the US?

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia – For the past two years, Liliana Guzman has felt like a shadow.

Liliana, 34, is one of 5.6 million people who have fled deepening economic and political crises in Venezuela in recent years. 

Migrants like Liliana go to receiving countries – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil – with little more than the clothes on their backs, often unable to obtain basic documents or resources to go through legal migratory processes.

She arrived in Bogotá two years ago “irregularly” with her two children – 4 and 14 – and has spent those years barely scraping by. 

Venezuelan migrant Liliana Guzman arrived in Bogota, Colombia, two years ago with her two children.

Venezuelan migrant Liliana Guzman arrived in Bogota, Colombia, two years ago with her two children.
Megan Janetsky

Unable to get a valid passport because of the crisis in her country, they crossed the Colombia-Venezuela border using a temporary border crossing card, which would allow them to access basic food and medical services and return to Venezuela. But Liliana never looked back.

Despite once working as the director of nursing in a hospital in Venezuela, Guzman now sells coffee and sweets on the street, earning around $10 a day for 15 hours of work.

“I try not to go out a lot other than to work,” Liliana said. 

“I go walking and some police ask me for my ID, but I only have the ID that gives me permission to cross the border. So they ask me ‘Where did you enter? Did you know that being in this country irregularly is a crime?’ The terror is always there.”

She felt a glimmer of hope in February when Colombian President Ivan Duque announced Colombia would provide legal protections to nearly 2 million Venezuelan migrants.

Colombian President Ivan Duque
You don’t have to be a rich country to do the right thing.

Duque said in a USA TODAY Editorial Board meeting that the policy put his country “on the right side of history.” 

“We have seen many times that the way that some governments have approached migration is with xenophobia or even negating that the problem exists,” Duque said. “We have to demonstrate to the world that you don’t have to be a rich country to do the right thing.” 

But taking a humanistic approach to migration is not an easy task in a country struggling to end decades of internal conflict and acutely struck by the economic consequences of a global pandemic.

Colombian President Ivan Duque talks Venezuelan migrants, immigration policies

President Iván Duque tells USA TODAY about how Colombia is reacting to the massive migration crisis on its border with Venezuela.

Staff video, USA TODAY

Duque’s move offers a rare glimpse into what it takes – navigating logistical labyrinths, the political fallouts and the potential payoffs – to make such a move at a time when the United States once again grapples with its own immigration reforms.

“Other countries are looking at Colombia and saying ‘Well, this is an experiment on receiving immigrants. And if it ends up succeeding, shouldn’t we be doing the same?’” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis in Bogotá.

But for both countries, the road is paved with challenges.

One of the biggest - and least funded - migrant crises

The exodus from Venezuela has become one of the worst displacement crises in the world, according to the United Nations, and neighboring Colombia has accepted more Venezuelan migrants than any other country.

Hyperinflation, corruption and heavy dependence on oil generated an economic crisis in Venezuela earlier in the decade. As that problem deepened, it made way for compounding crises: food, medical supply and petroleum shortages, collapsing medical systems and waves of blackouts. Meanwhile, the government of President Nicolas Maduro has violently stamped out political opposition.

Yet the mass migration is one of the most underfunded in recent history. Venezuelan migrants receive a small fraction of international aid dollars compared to those fleeing Syria, despite comparable migration numbers, according to data from Brookings Institution. 

While other nations like Ecuador and Peru have largely shut their doors to Venezuelans, Colombia has opened up work permits and other channels for migrants since the onset of the mass migration around 2015.

Around 2 million people have landed in Colombia, now making up about 4% of the South American country’s population. Many arrive informally, unable to obtain basic documentation like passports due to their country’s crisis.

Receiving countries have struggled to keep their heads above water, and things like public hospitals on the Colombia-Venezuela border have been overwhelmed trying to treat both Colombian and Venezuelan patients.

Liliana Guzman said living in the country without papers has taken a significant toll on her family’s health and that they can only access medical resources if there is an emergency. 

“If I get sick and go to a hospital, the only way I’ll get in is if I’m dying because if not, they don’t treat you,” she said.

A promise of protection

The latest protections intend to give migrants like Liliana access to medical services, education and the ability to open bank accounts. It applies to undocumented Venezuelans living in Colombia before Jan. 31, 2021 – approximately a million people – plus nearly a million more who are already legalized won’t have to periodically reapply for temporary work permits and visas.

But as Colombia faces its own economic crisis and unemployment, it struggles to serve more than 7 million Colombians who have been displaced by internal conflict, and public institutions already at capacity could be even more overwhelmed. 

“The biggest challenge is going to be providing basic goods and services,” said Guzman of Colombia Risk Analysis. “Not only to the Venezuelan immigrant population but also to local Colombians.”

As a result, analysts and migrant leaders have cast doubts on the government’s capacity to actually follow through on its promises. Colombia’s government has come under international criticism for their failures to follow through on key promises before, namely a 2016 peace pact with guerrillas – once widely acclaimed, it’s now crumbling.

Gimena Sanchez of Washington, D.C.-based think tank Washington Office on Latin America said the situation is “out of their hands.”

“The reality is that they can’t get rid of all these people even if they wanted to,” Sanchez said. “They have no way of doing that. So what they’re trying to do is manage it in a way that I think makes them look like they’re capable of doing a lot more than they really can.”

Venezuelans cross the Arauca river from La Victoria, Apure state, Venezuela to Arauquita municipality, Arauca department, Colombia, on March 26, 2021.

Venezuelans cross the Arauca river from La Victoria, Apure state, Venezuela to Arauquita municipality, Arauca department, Colombia, on March 26, 2021.
Daniel Fernando Martinez Cervera, AFP via Getty Images

For years, Duque and other regional leaders have asked for greater international aid funds to allow them to take on the exodus, but donations have continuously fallen short. Duque acknowledged that his country may not have the economic capacity to achieve the temporary protection status program on its own, but told USA TODAY that the program will allow the country to have a better handle on the situation and prevent exploitative working conditions.

“They’re already here,” he said. “Obviously, we need to have support from the international community. That’s no discussion.”

Dayana Camacho Favara, president of migrant aid group Venezuela Without Barriers or Borders said she also worries about the government’s ability to reach the most vulnerable.

Venezuelans who had to cross irregularly through dangerous informal border paths because they were unable to get a passport may struggle to prove that they were in the country before the date of the program, she said. Many others live in extreme poverty and lack access to basic information on the program or digital tools allowing them to register online.

Others fear registering with authorities. Aid organizations like Camacho’s have worked to fill in those gaps and dispel fears, but she said they can only go so far without government outreach.

“It’s an important job of ours to make sure people feel safe, to show that this is an opportunity for them and that they’re able to regularize their statuses without the fear that they’ll be deported or imprisoned,” Camacho said.

US political 'wedge' doesn't make for political willpower

As President Joe Biden attempts to push through immigration reform and undo former President Donald Trump-era mandates, the new administration faces its own set of challenges.

While the U.S. has more resources, the topic has become a lightning rod of deep polarization in the country, said Sanchez.

In his first weeks in office, Biden signed executive orders on immigration, including one order creating a task force geared toward reunifying separated families and another discontinuing the “remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum seekers to wait for court dates in often violent zones in Mexico. 

But the U.S. has also seen a surge of arrivals of unaccompanied minors to its southern border as they flee deteriorating conditions and environmental disaster in their own countries. The number of migrant encounters at the United States’ southern border increased 71% since February.

As a result, the administration has employed policies not dissimilar to Trump policies they once criticized, including overcrowding Customs and Border facilities and expelling some migrants arriving at the border. 

The Biden administration has also kept the U.S.-Mexico border sealed, continuing a Trump pandemic policy. Many policies from the previous administration could take months or years to unravel, said Jessica Bolter, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.

House passes immigration bill, DHS Sec. Mayorkas says southern border closed, so now what?

House passes immigration bill as immigrants coming to America in 2021 surges once again, and Alejandro Mayorkas says the southern border is closed.

Staff Video, USA TODAY

“Immigration has been a wedge issue in the United States,” Bolter said. “Following the Trump administration, this is still in the atmosphere. I think it’s become very difficult politically to get anything major done on immigration.”

The ripple effects seem to have marred Biden’s popularity ratings. While a new Quinnipiac poll reported 64% of adults approve of Biden’s COVID-19 policies, only 24% approve of Biden’s handling of children reaching the southern U.S. border without their parents.

It's not just about policy, it's about culture

Despite a wave of international praise for Colombia’s decision, Duque, too, has received criticisms domestically, though much of that criticism can also be rooted back to rising levels of xenophobia and tensions spurred on by the economic crisis. 

According to a January Gallup poll, 68% of Colombians look unfavorably on Venezuelans in the country.

Venezuelans rest at a shelter set up in a community center in Arauquita, Colombia, Friday, March 26, 2021, on the border with Venezuela.

Venezuelans rest at a shelter set up in a community center in Arauquita, Colombia, Friday, March 26, 2021, on the border with Venezuela.
Fernando Vergara, AP

The problem in both countries, said Sanchez, is that such steps don’t just mean changing a law. On a topic as volatile as migration, they often mean changing an entire culture.

“U.S. migration policy has always been geared toward excluding unwanted migrants from the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and laws like it, until now,” Sanchez said.

In Colombia, too, it has been what she called a “shift of the country’s identity.” The country has never been a receiver of migrants. Rather, decades of armed group violence pushed many Colombians to flee, hundreds of thousands of whom fled to once oil-rich Venezuela. Now with the roles reversed, the country has had to adjust to being a receiver country.

'Something better'

If Colombia is able to pull it off, the legalization program could have significant economic payoffs.

Despite labor tensions, Venezuelans have played a crucial role in Colombia’s workforce, working as harvesters in Colombian coffee farms and providing food delivery services through apps during the country’s stretching coronavirus quarantines last year.

Due in part to socialized education in their country, most Venezuelan migrants come highly educated, and a 2019 report by the International Monetary Fund projected that Venezuelan migration and policies that boost integration could raise gross domestic product growth in neighboring countries long-term.

For migrants like Liliana and her two children, it could be life-changing. 

Liliana Guzman
I left my country for something better … Life is a process and when you go through the worst, I think God will pay them back down the line.

As she looks to the future, she says she hopes to stop working on the streets, get her degree certified in Colombia and begin to work as a nurse once again. After years in the shadows, she sees a better life ahead.

“This status –  it’s what I’ve hoped for – because being here irregularly in this country, it’s like I don’t know who I am,” she said. 

“I left my country for something better … Life is a process and when you go through the worst, I think God will pay them back down the line.”

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