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What's driving Venezuelans to migrate to the US?

What factors have compelled millions of Venezuelans to leave their homeland and seek refugee status in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the U.S.?
What's driving Venezuelans to migrate to the US?
Posted at 4:23 PM, Sep 30, 2023

The Biden Administration has announced it will be extending the Temporary Protection Status for nearly half a million Venezuelan nationals residing in the U.S.

The Temporary Protection Status (or TPS) protects Venezuelans already residing here from deportation and opens pathways for getting employment authorization.

The expansion of the program was made in response to Venezuela's "increased instability and lack of safety due to enduring humanitarian, security, political, and environmental conditions."

Through 2020, Venezuela remained one of the top five countries of origin for asylum seekers in the U.S.

The country also has one of the largest forced displacements in the world, according to the United Nations. Over 7 million people have been forced to leave, or about a fifth of the country's population.

"About 2000 Venezuelans are leaving per day with this current setting. And I would say economics might be at this point the biggest reason why, although, of course, the political situation and the social situation are huge factors," said Jennie Murray, President and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. "The poverty rate is an important thing to talk about. In the last decade, the poverty rate has grown tremendously. We saw it in 2021, at its peak of 65.2%."

Venezuela's economic crisis, from extreme poverty to hyperinflation, stems from a few key factors.

The biggest among them is economic mismanagement, lack of economic diversification, and dependence on the production and exploitation of oil.

"They never really realized that they hadn't developed the local industry to satisfy the need to replace all of the imported products that Venezuela had become accustomed to. You see, Venezuela had so many resources stemming from oil that they bought everything abroad," said Eduardo Gamarra, Professor of Political Science at Florida International University.

This sent the economy into a spiral in 2014, which has also been exacerbated and deepened in the near decade since.

"And when the prices of oil downturned in 2014, we saw a significant 70% decline per barrel with a country that has 95% of its exports focused on oil. That impacted the economy greatly and dramatically. And then we saw another huge factor. So the U.S., being a major player in the economic downturn, came in and put sanctions on the largest oil producer in Venezuela," said Murray.

SEE MORE: Over 140,000 migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border this month

Since the Bush administration, each U.S. president has continued to support sanctions against Venezuela. Experts agree that the sanctions have played a large role in hampering the oil industry's recovery. But opinion is mixed on how much of the economic collapse can be blamed on the U.S.

"The Venezuelan government is adamant about the lifting of sanctions. And they have been arguing that it's the sanctions that have led to the situation in Venezuela. And that's just, you know, that's simply not correct. It's the same argument that the Cubans have been using for the last 60 years," said Gamarra.

Some members of Congress have recommended reviewing or even lifting sanctions. The Biden administration has been resistant but is reportedly in talks with Venezuela to exchange sanctions relief for a free election in exchange for fair elections.

In addition to the economic crisis, the political crisis in the country has also reached a breaking point.

Nicolas Maduro's regime has consolidated power in the executive branch, extremely weakening judicial and legislative bodies.

He has also transformed the government into a de facto one-party state, disqualifying, jailing, and suppressing opposition.

UN investigators and the NGO Human Rights Watch have found systematic human rights violations, like extrajudicial arrests, torture, and executions, in a crackdown on dissent.

The economic crisis, combined with the lack of political power and the threat of gang or political violence, has created the perfect storm for Venezuela's refugee crisis.

"We know this from other global settings that when we see leaders move so far into the level of control that we're seeing with Maduro, we know that generations, honestly or multi-generation families, will flee and will seek to live life, set down roots, and never return," said Murray.

The U.S. has had relatively few Venezuelan refugees; until recently, most migrants escaped to the south rather than making the extremely dangerous journey north.

The vast majority of the population—roughly 6 million out of over 7 million—is settled in neighboring countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Refugees have settled, particularly in Colombia, which was the first nation to institute a TPS strategy to authorize employment for Venezuelans.

"But throughout the hemisphere, the Venezuelans have had a mixed reception; in some countries, they've been welcomed. In most countries, they've set off xenophobic responses," said Gamarra. "Ecuador, you know, from everything—you know, I mean, even in Colombia. I mean, this idea that... until the Venezuelans came, there was no crime. Until the Venezuelans came, there was no prostitution, and so on and so forth."

With the deep-rooted economic and political crisis in the country and no easy solution, the mass exodus from Venezuela has no end in sight. As the fallout spreads throughout the region and as far north as the U.S. southern border, the humanitarian crisis may be a pressing issue for generations to come.

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