Despite Help for Venezuelans in South America, Many Are Still Heading North

Food shortages triggered by Venezuela’s economic collapse pushed Victor Rojas onto a bus and across the border to Colombia. But soon after arriving, he was in a state of shock.

He had quickly gone from studying music at a university in Caracas and performing in orchestras to playing violin for tips on the streets of Bogotá.

But within months of arriving, he had received a special residency permit meant to address a surge of Venezuelan migrants. Eventually, his street performances led to regular gigs at weddings and graduations and the permit allowed him to formalize the growing business and gain an economic toehold.

The permit program, created by Colombia in 2021 and supported by the United States, was hailed as innovative and generous, particularly for a country with little experience with mass migration flows, and was seen as a potential model for large-scale displacement in other regions.

In the United States, which contributed more than $12 million to the program, the effort came to be seen by policymakers as one way to address the migration crisis at the U.S. border.

During a visit to Colombia two years ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the program “a model for the region, and in many ways a model for the world.’’

The program, which was announced by Colombia’s then-president, Iván Duque, a conservative ally of the United States, grants temporary protected status to nearly all Venezuelans in Colombia, allowing them to live and work legally for 10 years, including many with no photo identification.

Mr. Rojas, 26, said his residency status “changed absolutely everything.”

“I had access to health care, I had access to banks,” he added.

Mr. Rojas hanging a jacket featuring the Venezuelan flag in his room in Bogotá.Credit…Nathalia Angarita for The New York Times

By one measure, the program has been a major success — more than two million Venezuelans have registered for Colombian residency.

But by other measures, the policy is falling short, and many Venezuelans have left Colombia bound for the United States, contributing to a record number of Venezuelans who arrived at the U.S. border last year.

While there is no data available on how many Venezuelans with a Colombian permit have migrated, many Venezuelans making their way north say they decided to abandon Colombia because they could not earn enough to support their families.

Though Mr. Rojas has found financial stability in Colombia, he said he has no plans to make the country his permanent home.

Growing up studying classical music, he said, he always dreamed of going to Paris and New York, cities “where everything that moves my soul comes from.”

Since 2016, Venezuelans fleeing economic ruin under the socialist dictatorship of President Nicolás Maduro, have settled mainly in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.

But when word spread that Washington’s lack of diplomatic relations with Venezuela made it difficult to turn away migrants, many decided to risk a dangerous trek through the Darién Gap, a jungle linking South and Central America, creating a humanitarian and political crisis for President Biden.

A Venezuelan family trekking through the Darién Gap, a dangerous jungle linking Central and South America, last year.Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times

Venezuelan migration to the U.S. border exploded in recent years, to more than 189,000 crossings last year, from roughly 4,500 in 2020. This has made Venezuelans the second-largest migrant group, after Mexicans, entering the United States illegally.

For the United States, Colombia’s temporary visa program came to be seen as one way to address the surge, said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

“Over time, it acquired greater visibility as a means of managing migration in the hemisphere,” he said.

But in October, the Biden administration abruptly shifted gears and started expelling most Venezuelans, using a pandemic-era public health rule. At the same time, the administration created a new pathway that allows Venezuelans outside the United States to apply for humanitarian parole, though critics say the process is cumbersome.

Since the United States started stopping Venezuelans trying to enter the country, the number of Venezuelans encountered at the border dropped to less than 100 a day in January from roughly 1,100 a day the week before the Biden administration’s announcement in October, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

More than seven million Venezuelans, a fourth of the country’s population, have left since 2015 — the second largest migration in the world after Ukraine — and about a third have ended up in Colombia. The two nations share deep linguistic, cultural and familial ties, and the approach toward the growing migrant population was quickly one of inclusion.

An informal settlement of Venezuelan migrants in Uribe, Colombia, in 2018. Venezuelans began arriving in large numbers in Colombia as their home country’s economy deteriorated.Credit…Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

For Colombia, a middle-income country of 50 million, to accept 2.5 million refugees was no small feat, and the campaign to give permits to people whom Mr. Duque often referred to as their “Venezuelan brothers and sisters” was lauded internationally.

“This policy is really a model. Which country has done that?” said Mireille Girard, the representative in Colombia for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Giving 10 years of temporary protection to a large number of persons that were in need and with a country that had its own problems.”

Neighboring countries have also established temporary visa programs for Colombian migrants: In Peru, 360,000 of the 1.5 million Venezuelans in the country have legal status, while in Ecuador 200,000 of the 500,000 Venezuelan migrants have a similar status.

Christian Krüger, a former director of Colombia’s immigration authority, noted that in 2014 the total number of foreigners from any country living in Colombia was less than 140,000.

When Venezuelans started arriving in large numbers, officials adopted an open-door policy by distributing various types of visas, before establishing the broader temporary permit program.

People crossing the Simón Bolívar International Bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia, on the country’s border with Venezuela, last year.Credit…Nathalia Angarita for The New York Times

Mr. Rojas, for example, first received a residency permit in 2018, before he got temporary protected status in 2021.

It has not been without hiccups. Reaching applicants in rural areas without internet access or documentation was difficult, said Ronal Rodríguez, a researcher at Rosario University in Bogotá who has studied the permit program. Many employers, bank workers and health care providers do not recognize the permit, he added.

There have also been long delays. While 2.5 million Venezuelan migrants have registered for the permit, less than 1.6 million have actually received one.

Experts cite these shortcomings as contributing to Venezuelans choosing to leave Colombia.

But many Venezuelans suggest a bigger reason: that even a seemingly generous migration policy cannot solve the low wages, lack of upward mobility and high inflation plaguing Colombia and much of Latin America.

“They are not leaving because of immigration policy,” said Ligia Bolívar, a sociologist from Venezuela based in Bogotá. “They still believe in the American dream.”

On a corner outside a hamburger restaurant in Cedritos, a neighborhood in north Bogotá nicknamed “Cedrizuela” because of its large concentration of Venezuelans, a group of delivery workers,all of whom were from the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo, were gathered.

Venezuelan delivery drivers at work in Bogotá.Credit…Nathalia Angarita for The New York Times

They all had similar stories. They said they had gotten temporary permits, but had dreams of living elsewhere. They had worked in carwashes, fast food restaurants and bars. None paid more than enough to scrape by.

In recent years, Venezuelans have become the engine of what many workers call an underpaid, overworked delivery economy in Colombian cities, where they deliver food and other goods by motorcycle or bicycle to wealthier people.

José Tapia, a 24-year delivery worker, used his phone to scroll through the payments — all less than one dollar. On an average day, he said, he made about $10, roughly the equivalent of Colombia’s daily minimum wage.

A Venezuelan delivery driver showing the earnings he made in a day’s work, about $4.Credit…Nathalia Angarita for The New York Times

Another delivery worker, Santiago Romero, 39, has lived in six countries in Latin America over the last four years. But his ultimate goal is the United States — he has started the application process under the new parole program and hopes to join his brother in Las Vegas.

“He tells me, ‘things are better here,’” said Mr. Romero. “That you have to work hard, but it’s better.”

The permit program was “valuable, but by itself it does not respond to the needs of migrants,” said Laura Gil, Colombia’s vice minister for multilateral affairs. Without more investment from the United States to improve living conditions in Colombia, she added, Venezuelans will continue to leave.

Mr. Rojas, the violinist, embodies the benefits of the policy, but also its limits. By his own account, he was lucky that the process for obtaining his temporary permit was relatively smooth. and he is “extremely grateful” to the Colombian government.

Though Mr. Rojas has found financial stability in Colombia, he said he had no plans to make the country his permanent home.Credit…Nathalia Angarita for The New York Times

Still, his ultimate goal has always been the United States or Europe.

Last year he made plans to cross the Darién Gap but was thwarted after the sudden change in border policy shut the door to most Venezuelans. Now he doesn’t know how, when or to where he will migrate, but he is undeterred.

Like many Venezuelan migrants, he said that uprooting his life once makes it easier to do it again.

“Migrating made me feel free, because I felt that in Venezuela, I had already lost everything,” Mr. Rojas said. “I’m not afraid of that anymore, because I realized that you can be reborn.”

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