Venezuelan asylum seekers: caught between a rock and a hard place

Monday May 1, 2023

You’ve doubtless seen headlines like these in recent weeks: “City of Denver asks for help meeting needs of newly arriving migrants from Venezuela” and “Transition plans In place to move Venezuelan asylum seekers to Chicago by month’s end.

It may seem – from the headlines – that U.S. cities are receiving large numbers of asylum seekers from Venezuela. But in reality, the number arriving here is a small fraction of the millions of people caught up in what Human Rights Watch is calling “the largest migration crisis in recent Latin American history.” U.S. authorities reported encountering about 188,000 Venezuelans at the border with Mexico last year, and this represented an increase of 73 percent over the previous year. But those numbers seem far from staggering when placed in context: more than 7 million Venezuelans have fled from home since 2015. That’s approximately one quarter of the country’s entire population, making Venezuela the second-largest refugee crisis in the world (behind the war in Syria).

What’s behind this mass exodus?

Venezuela fell into a protracted political crisis and economic freefall eight years ago, precipitated by the sudden decline in the price of oil in 2014. (It plunged from $100 per barrel to $50 and then down to $30 per barrel.) Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and 95 percent of the country’s export earnings come from oil.

That mid-decade drop in prices crippled the economy and threw the country into political turmoil. Human rights organizations the world over have accused Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government of brutal political repression and human rights violations, including jailing political opponents, torturing detainees, harassing pro-democracy activists and journalists, violently cracking down on protesters, and destroying the integrity of the judicial system.

President Maduro, who lacks the popular support of his predecessor, President Hugo Chavez, used electoral fraud to consolidate his power. In 2018, he declared himself the victor in a reelection race condemned worldwide as unfair and undemocratic. In response, the U.S. in 2019 imposed an economic embargo against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. In addition, the previous U.S. administration froze Venezuelan government assets in the U.S. and cut off Venezuela’s access to U.S. financial markets.

The sanctions – combined with terrible mismanagement of the oil industry by Maduro’s government – led to a collapse in Venezuela’s oil production, which fell from nearly three million barrels per day in 2014 to 350,000 in 2020. As a consequence, Venezuela’s GDP shrank by roughly two-thirds between 2014 and 2020, and inflation spiraled out of control, reaching more than 2000 percent in 2020.

Humanitarian nightmare

As a result of this collapse, 95 out of 100 Venezuelans are now living in poverty – and about 75 in 100 are struggling to survive extreme, apocalyptic poverty, according to the United Nations. They are severely malnourished and without enough drinking water; it’s estimated that more than 40 percent of Venezuelan children have been stunted in their development by deprivation.

These dire circumstances mean that Venezuela, a country that has been traditionally a generous host to refugees, is now grappling with its own displacement crisis. The U.N. estimates that some 5,000 Venezuelans are fleeing their country every day.

Initially the emigrés settled in Colombia, Peru, and other neighboring countries, but many of them started coming in larger numbers to the U.S. in 2021 due to worsening conditions in those South American and Caribbean countries to which they initially fled. Before 2022, many migrants were able to easily enter Mexico (often by air) and make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. However, after Mexico enacted visa restrictions on Venezuelans in January 2022, a growing number began making the treacherous journey across the Darien Gap and overland through Central America to the U.S. border.

Title 42 and Venezuela

Until the most recent policy changes last fall, Title 42 – a public health measure that has been used since the previous administration to expel asylum-seekers and other border-crossers – could not be applied to Venezuelans.  Because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Venezuela, Venezuelans could not be deported back to that country. However, an agreement was reached last year that provides a mechanism whereby Venezuelans are now being deported from the U.S. to Mexico, and then from Mexico  to Venezuela.

Helping Venezuelans with few family-based resources in the U.S.

As if Venezuelan asylum seekers didn’t have enough hurdles to clear, those arriving now are in a kind of generational vanguard. People have been immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for decades; this means many new arrivals from those countries have family members in the U.S. who can help them get on their feet. But Venezuelans are just now beginning to arrive here in significant numbers, so they don’t have the same level of family resources to draw upon. Asylum seekers from Venezuela must turn to church groups and other resources as they struggle to stay alive here in the U.S. while they await the outcome of their court proceedings.

To make their situation even more challenging, they are prohibited by law from seeking employment for at least their first five months in the country. Those with family members back in Venezuela who are starving to death are feeling an unbelievable amount of urgency to get a job so they can send some money home right away.  Additionally, they’re in dire need of funds to pay for an immigration attorney. According to a study published by Syracuse University, asylum seekers who are represented by an attorney have greatly increased odds of winning asylum or other forms of relief from deportation. Nearly nine out of ten asylum seekers who successfully pursued their claims in U.S. immigration were represented by an attorney.

A consideration of the realities Venezuelan asylum seekers face can inform the plans of groups seeking to sponsor them. If you’re interested in learning more about how to plan for all of the exigencies of sponsoring asylum seekers from Venezuela (and elsewhere), HIAS is an organization that offers excellent resources and practical support.

Article written by Cynthia Pulham Wolfe, the communications team lead for PCC4Refugees.

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