By Moisés Rendón*
The United States has committed to help Venezuelans restore their democracy. It’s in the national and regional interest to see security and stability in the region. But efforts by the international community have fallen short so far. Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, which now faces the added implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, continues to deteriorate at breakneck speed with no political solution in sight.
This crisis has caused more than 5.2 million people to flee Venezuela. Now, as migrants and refugees, Venezuelans are seeking jobs and a safer life in places such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and other countries. But many of these Venezuelans, especially those working informal jobs, have lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic. As a result, some migrants and refugees have been left with no other option but to risk their own lives by returning to Venezuela.
While the United States has led international effort to pressure the Maduro regime, much more can be done to help Venezuelan migrants within its own borders. There are two options to approach this crisis as part of a more comprehensive and bipartisan strategy to assist all Venezuelans, including the estimated484,450 who now live in the United States. An impactful option would be granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans. Alternatively, the U.S. government could issue a presidential proclamation of policy, granting Venezuelans a temporary special permit to reside and work legally in the United States.
Granting TPS to Venezuelans
TPS is a temporary immigration status provided to eligible citizens of designated countries that are confronting ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or extraordinary and temporary conditions. TPS allows eligible nationals who are already in the United States at the time of designation to remain and work in the country for a limited period or until their lives are no longer at risk upon their return to their home country. The designation can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months but is often extended far beyond that. Currently, nationals from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Syria, and Nicaragua have been granted TPS in the United States.
Venezuelans who are fleeing their country’s security and humanitarian crisis are no different from those with eligible for TPS. First, Venezuela is one of the most unsafe countries in the world. Venezuela endures the highest homicides rate in the region—with 16,506 murders in 2019 and a rate of 60.3 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Over 90 percent of homicides cases are unresolved. In addition, political persecution is widespread not only against opposition leaders but also against common citizens. For example, communities are policed through politically incentivized colectivos, organized civilian militias loyal to the Maduro regime. Through a politically motivatedsubsidized food distribution system called Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP is the Spanish acronym), many Venezuelans are forced to register for the Maduro regime’s political party to access food.
Today, Venezuela is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, undergoing unprecedented economic, health, and food insecurity. The International Monetary Fund predicts hyperinflation will hit 15,000 percent by the end of this year. About one-third of its population is at risk of famine. The country was already struggling with other epidemic challenges before Covid-19. Venezuela is considered at risk for the spread of yellow fever, Guillain-Barré syndrome, Zika, and malaria, according to the World Health Organization. Venezuela ranks among the countries least capable of mitigating and responding to an epidemic; it ranks 180 out of 195 in the Global Health Security Index. And now that Covid-19 is spreading within the country, the suffering of Venezuelans is only expected to increase. Returning Venezuelans have been labeled by the regime as biological weapons. They have been subjected to inhumane treatment upon their arrival, forced to break social distancing guidelines, and deprived of food, clean water, and transportation back to their home towns.
Both a Moral Obligation and in U.S. Interests
- Venezuelans are highly educated and will contribute to the U.S. economy. Among the entire foreign-born population in the United States, Venezuelan migrants have the highest level of education: 57 percent of Venezuelan immigrants in the United States hold a college degree. Providing TPS for Venezuelans would allow them to join the formal labor force, leading to an increase in Medicare and Social Security contributions and in the national tax base. Venezuelans are known to be entrepreneurial, opening multiple businesses that provide jobs to locals.
- Venezuelans are dependent on remittances to survive. Venezuelans already face various challenges to sending remittances back home. In addition to the Maduro regime’s efforts to restrict currency exchange systems, some U.S. financial institutions have shut down platforms like Zelle in the country. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 75 percent of the total number of Venezuelans currently living in the United States would qualify for TPS. If these Venezuelan nationals were to be granted permission to work legally, they would be more financially secure and would likely be able to send more desperately needed remittances to their relatives back in Venezuela. Given the devaluation of the local currency, remittances in dollars are indispensable for many Venezuelan households.
- The United States needs a clear and comprehensive foreign policy toward Venezuela. The Trump administration has taken significant steps to pressure the Maduro regime. But this maximum pressure campaign should be complemented by efforts to address the humanitarian and migration crises, which are a consequence of corruption, mismanagement, and human rights abuses by the Chávez and Maduro regimes. Providing TPS for Venezuelans is a vital part of this humanitarian component and would place the United States in an important leadership role for other countries to follow.
- Organizing the Venezuelan diaspora. A structured and organized Venezuelan community in the United States could provide a platform for exiled Venezuelans to become more active in both humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. Examplessuch as the Greek, Cuban, and Jewish diasporas show that a connected Venezuelan diaspora, as a cohesive and consensus body, could positively impact and shape better policies to assist Venezuelans on the ground.
An Alternative to TPS
Many lawmakers have expressed concerns regarding the difficulty of bringing TPS to closure given that countries that received TPS status in the 1990s—many based on natural disasters—still hold it today. As an alternative to TPS, the executive branch could issue a proclamation of policy directed to the secretary of state, attorney general, and secretary of homeland security granting temporary legal status to Venezuelans already in the United States in light of the exceptional conditions of the Venezuelan crisis. Although this is a short-term solution, a proclamation of policy would allow Venezuelans to reside and work legally in the United States temporarily. A proclamation of policy would not be subjected to judicial review, and unlike TPS, it can be revoked by the president at any time, which frees future administrations from an obligation to continue applying the policy.
There is bipartisan support in Congress for the Venezuelan people. Failing to address the status of Venezuelan immigrants here in the United States would put many more people’s lives at risk. Returning non-violent Venezuelans to the life-threatening situations they face in their home country will most likely worsen the domestic security crisis and therefore make a possible future transition to democracy even more challenging.
Article posted on Center for Strategic & International Studies
*Moisés Rendón is Director of The Future of Venezuela Initiative and Fellow, Americas Program of the Center for Strategic & International Studies.