Colombia Is Giving Legal Status to Migrants Fleeing Venezuela

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In 2019, Deveís Hernandez couldn’t earn enough in Venezuela to keep his wife and two daughters fed, no matter how much he worked. So he spent the last of his savings on a series of bus trips from Puerto La Cruz, a small city on the northeastern coast, to Cúcuta, on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. He took up the gauntlet of a lawless frontier and left his homeland behind in hopes of building a better future.

By the time he crossed the border informally via a smuggling path controlled by criminals, his earthly possessions consisted of two pairs of shoes, a Captain America backpack, the clothes on his back, and a few pairs of socks.

From there he walked about 400 miles to the Colombian capital, Bogota, where he found a job in a recycling center. For a year, he worked under the table for about $9 a day, a bit less than the minimum wage in Colombia, which is $260 a month. He has been saving ever since to send for his family. “I won’t make my daughters walk the trochas,” he says, using the slang term for dangerous smuggling paths on the border.

So when President Iván Duque announced at the end of February that Colombia would extend full resident status to the almost 2 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia as well as a path to citizenship, Hernandez was elated.

“This means I can finally get a real job,” he says. “With luck, I won’t have to live off scraps.” He also hopes the measures will make it considerably easier to enroll his daughters in school when they arrive, an issue he has worried about since he lacks even basic paperwork for identification purposes.

Hernandez is one of 5.4 million Venezuelans that the United Nations estimates have fled their country due to violence, insecurity and threats; a collapsed economy; and a lack of food, medicine, and essential services. The International Monetary Fund expects that number to nearly double, to 10 million, by the end of 2023. As of January 2020, more than 1.7 million of those migrants were currently in Colombia.

Colombia will soon be offering migrants a full welcome. Duque’s announcement means Colombia will give nearly 2 million immigrants—almost 5 percent of Colombia’s total population—the ability to work legally and have access to education and health care systems. Those who register with the government will be put on a path to full citizenship.

Colombia’s choice stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where migrants from Central America must wait months on the Southern border in squalid conditions, where mass deportations (even amid a pandemic) are commonplace, and where even immigrants who have lived in the country for 20 years might find themselves ripped away from their families and banished from their new homeland for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As politicians in the United States talked of border walls and anchor babies while the government spent hundreds of millions of dollars for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to stalk undocumented migrants, Colombia was conducting the largest open borders experiment the modern world has ever seen.

Since even before the Venezuelan collapse began in earnest in 2015, migrants needed only basic identification to enter Colombia. As former President Barack Obama, and successor Donald Trump, caged those trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, Colombia was officially welcoming a much larger quantity of refugees in comparison with its population—and with far less resources.

The United States has a GDP 60 times that of Colombia, despite having just over seven times the population. Colombia also has a poverty rate nearly four times that of the U.S., at 35.7 percent.

Yet, in sharp contrast with the U.S. and regional neighbors like Ecuador and Peru, Colombia kept its border open to Venezuelans until the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The Venezuelan exodus has been a rare real-life trial case of how mass migration affects host countries. And the data have shown that most of the anti-immigrant arguments heard in both countries couldn’t possibly be more wrong.

Economic prophecies of mass unemployment never came to pass. In fact, data from the Colombian central bank suggests that migration may have super-charged the Colombian economy, which experienced record growth between 2015 and 2020 before the pandemic crushed the economies of the entire region. Increased consumer demand, spending due to increased consumption, and a workforce that is often self-employed informally all contributed to a net positive effect on the Colombian economy.

Although migration did depress the wages of low-skilled workers slightly, according to the same labor force study, it had no negative effect on the employment rate. Economists suggest that the new law will allow skilled Venezuelans, such as teachers and engineers, to enter the Colombian job market that they were previously excluded from, as well as lower barriers for those who wish to start businesses.

The net economic impact of the migration has already been positive, and that trend is only likely to increase in the future as migrants move away from the informal job market.

Rumors of secure borders being necessary for security were similarly unfounded. Immigrants in both the United States and Colombia are less likely to commit crimes than natural-born citizens. In fact, their illegal status leaves them more vulnerable. Worldwide, migrants are more likely to be the victims of crime, and are less likely to report those crimes to the police.

“The U.S system leaves illegal immigrants living in fear,” Adam Solow, an immigration lawyer in Philadelphia told Reason by phone. “It’s effect is to create a second class citizenry who live in the shadows and can be exploited for their labor.”

For Hernandez, Colombia’s new law is a godsend. He now plans on sending for his wife and daughters, in addition to seeking a better job. “I haven’t only been exiled from [the] country,” he says. “I’ve been exiled from my family.”

In Colombia, at least, that second part is no longer true. The U.S should learn from Colombia’s experience that migration is not a threat to the nation, either economically or existentially, but rather an opportunity to invest in the country’s future. Humane immigration policy isn’t only the morally correct course of action, it is in our best interests.

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