Chaos along the Mexican border constitutes a crisis so severe, according to the Trump administration, that it was worth shutting down much of the government in a bid to get funding for a wall — and may require the president to exercise emergency powers to bypass Congress.
The thousands of Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others fleeing violence and poverty in Central America do indeed represent a major challenge to a broken immigration system. But a crisis? It’s not even close to the one facing Colombia and other neighbors of Venezuela.
Tensions increased dramatically in Venezuela this past week. Incumbent President Nicolás Maduro and the head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, both claimed the presidency. The United States and a number of Venezuela’s neighbors recognized Guaidó’s claim. On Saturday, Britain, Germany, France and Spain gave Maduro eight days to call new elections or said they would follow suit. Venezuela’s military — so far, at least — has lined up behind Maduro. So has Russia, which squared off against the Trump administration in a Security Council debate on Saturday, as well as Mexico and China.
The U.N. says 3 million people — about 10 percent of Venezuela’s population — already have fled due to hyperinflation, shortages, violence and instability. More than a million of them have flooded into Colombia. About 4,000 more arrive every day. Among other countries, the U.N. says Peru hosts another half a million Venezuelans, and Ecuador almost quarter of a million.
U.N. officials say neighboring countries “have largely maintained a commendable open-door policy” toward Venezuelans, and it issued an appeal for $738 million to help those countries care for them. But strains are apparent. The longer this goes on, the worse it gets.
Inflation in Venezuela is predicted to reach an incomprehensible 10 million percent this year. Oil extraction, pretty much the only productive economic activity going on in Venezuela, is plummeting.
According to one expert analysis, the number leaving Venezuela soon could reach more than 8 million, or one quarter of the population, creating a bigger migration crisis than Syria. To put that number in perspective, a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center estimated the entire undocumented population of the United States — including long-term residents with jobs — is about 10 million, a number that has been declining for years.
Colombia, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west, is on the front line of today’s crisis. Venezuelans who need shelter, medical care, schools and a way to earn money have endangered Colombia’s efforts to emerge from half a century of civil war, a conflict that killed an estimated 220,000 people. Mindful that many Colombians sought refuge in Venezuela during that war, Colombia has provided a special identification card that allows Venezuelans to move back and forth across the border, as well as a permit that allows them to work for two years.
Colombia’s war ended just two years ago, and its population of internally displaced people is still probably the biggest in the world. Many people work for low wages in the informal economy, and they fear being undercut by migrant labor. The country faces a huge challenge assimilating former leftist rebels back into society.
Bogota-based journalist Megan Janetsky reports protesters at a recently opened camp in the Colombian capital claimed the Venezuelans would bring crime and disease. There have been mob attacks and threats against Venezuelan migrants circulating the country, she says.
In Brazil, about 700 Venezuelans arrive every day, and many go to camps that are run by the army, the U.N. and non-governmental organizations. But there also have been clashes along the border. The country’s new populist, right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, is pulling Brazil from a U.N. migration agreement, but has not indicated that his policy toward the Venezuelans will change.
Venezuelans also head to Peru or Ecuador, reportedly because they think it will be easier to find work there. Angelina Jolie visited Peru in October to highlight the plight of those who had fled Venezuela. Some think that because the U.S. is an outspoken foe of the Maduro government, it will be relatively easy to get political asylum here. But an Associated Press report in August showed how difficult it actually is.
The U.S. appears to be working more closely now with other countries to increase pressure on Maduro. It’s hard to tell whether that’s a rare instance of Trump coordinating with allies — or an illustration of how the administration has outsourced Venezuela policy to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Meanwhile, another of those infamous convoys of Central Americans is getting ready to head north. The Trump administration intends to force asylum-seekers back across the border, and make them wait there. On Sunday, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney suggested Trump would use emergency powers if Congress refuses to fund wall construction in the next three weeks. That sounds like Trump’s way out: Do something that invites a court challenge, blame everyone else for the delay — and move on.
With some variations, the problem along the U.S.-Mexico border probably will remain much as it is. For the Hemisphere’s real migration crisis, look farther south.