Horrendous political, economic, and public health conditions in Venezuela are spurring one of the worst exoduses of people in Latin America’s memory. The United Nations estimates that the number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants will grow to 5.3 million by the end of 2019, should conditions continue to deteriorate. Many of them are undertaking dangerous journeys by foot.
Yet even as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens military force to achieve the regime change he’s calling for in Venezuela — which could fuel even more displacement and human suffering — his administration has accelerated deportations from the United States, complicated Venezuelans’ efforts to obtain visas, and imposed numerous obstacles to asylum seekers.
Venezuelans rank first in the number of U.S. asylum applicants by nationality, and a disproportionately high 45 percent of those cases were denied in U.S. immigration courts last year. Meanwhile, according to State Department records, the United States has not resettled a single Venezuelan refugee in years.
If the United States is serious about supporting the Venezuelan people, Congress has several initial pathways to provide urgent protections for Venezuelans seeking refuge, and to help ensure that Venezuela’s mass displacement crisis is not compounded.
First, Congress must immediately pass recently–introduced and widely-supported bipartisan legislation directing the administration to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuela. For decades, the TPS program has served as life-saving immigration relief, protecting people from forcible return to countries where their lives or freedoms would be at risk.
More than 72,000 Venezuelans and their U.S.-born children and families could benefit from TPS, and the ongoing conditions in Venezuela satisfy the statutory criteria for TPS designation under Section 244 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Denying TPS for Venezuela could lead to mass deportations back to conditions of suffering, and in a worst-case scenario, even starvation and death. Parents could be faced with the difficult decision of whether to take their U.S.-born citizen children with them to their unsafe country of origin or leave them behind in the United States.
In addition, Congress must revitalize the U.S. refugee and asylum systems and provide robust support to regional refugee host nations like Colombia. For more than two years, the Trump administration has been systematically dismantling the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and backlogging the U.S. asylum system. It has, for example, rallied against landmark international agreements, set historic-low refugee resettlement goals and failed to meet them, illegally turned away asylum seekers, and further militarized the southern border.
To disrupt this trend, Congress should pass legislation like the GRACE Act, which would set a minimum annual refugee admissions goal of 95,000 and enact other reforms that preserve and expand initiatives to fortify refugee rights and protections.
Ultimately, solidarity with displaced peoples must not stop at humanizing borders and resettling refugees. Instead, we need a renewed commitment to confronting the drivers of forced migration, including failed U.S. foreign policies like blanket sanctions and previous attempts at regime change that have bolstered hardliners and handed them a narrative to solidify their power.
Doing so requires: 1) acknowledging that the conditions perpetuating the crisis in Venezuela — government-sanctioned human rights abuses, food and medical shortages, and rampant crime and corruption — do not have military or simple solutions; and 2) pursuing human-centered, multilateral diplomacy to help achieve stability, accountability, and a negotiated political transition that upholds all Venezuelans’ desire for safety and self-determination.
Human displacement worldwide is at historic proportions, driven by fast-spreading authoritarianism, man-made humanitarian crises, and rampant racism, militarism, and inequality at home and abroad. At such a time of global stress, solidarity with refugees and migrants must guide our foreign policy. Venezuelans fleeing crisis have already faced insurmountable obstacles, heartbreak, and trauma in the pursuit of sanctuary. We must not make this pursuit impossible.
IMAGE: Venezuelans protest in front of the United Nations on Jan. 26, 2019, in New York, during a special UN Security Council session on Venezuela. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)