Andres Oppenheimer

Millions are fleeing Venezuela. Why won’t President Trump give refugees TPS? | Opinion

A Venezuelan woman heads to Peru, walking along the Panamerican Highway in Tulcan, Ecuador, after crossing over from Colombia.
A Venezuelan woman heads to Peru, walking along the Panamerican Highway in Tulcan, Ecuador, after crossing over from Colombia. Getty Images

When I recently asked Colombian President Ivan Duque whether he’s ever asked President Trump why the United States isn’t giving Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelan refugees — as Colombia does — he evaded the question, sort of.

Duque replied that he has called on “all countries in the hemisphere” to accept more Venezuelan exiles.

It was an understandable response, given that Colombia needs U.S. aid, and the Colombian president would be ill-advised to criticize America’s notoriously short-tempered president.

However, while Colombia and other middle-income Latin American countries are giving legal immigration papers to the bulk of the 4.6 million Venezuelan refugees who have fled their country over the past five years, the United States — the richest country on Earth — has so far not given a TPS to Venezuelan migrants.

The U.S. House, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bipartisan bill to grant TPS to Venezuelans, but the Republican-majority Senate has not approved it. The Trump administration says it’s working on a plan to admit Venezuelan refugees, but so far it hasn’t produced anything.

According to new Organization of American States (OAS) data released last week, Colombia has granted legal residency to 1.6 million Venezuelans during the past five years. By comparison, only about 221,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the United States during the same period, according to a Pew Research Center study based on U.S. Census figures. Most of them do not have legal residency papers.

In addition to the Venezuelans who have moved to neighboring Colombia over the past five years, 900,000 Venezuelans have moved to Peru, 422,000 to Chile, 400,000 to Ecuador, 350,000 to Brazil, 170,000 to Argentina, 150,000 to Panama, 100,000 to Mexico, 40,000 to the Dominican Republic and 30,000 to Costa Rica, according to the latest OAS count.

That count also shows that there are 421,000 Venezuelans of Hispanic origin in the United States, but the figure includes immigrants who came here decades ago, OAS officials told me.

There are growing signs that Latin American countries are finding it increasingly hard to take in more Venezuelan refugees. Colombia’s President Duque said that it’s his country’s moral duty to accept Venezuelan migrants, but immediately added about the open-border policy: “Can this be sustainable in the long run? Of course not.”

Some countries, including Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Panama, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago have already begun to limit entry of Venezuelan migrants.

David Smolansky, head of the OAS Working Group on Venezuelan Migrants, told me that the Venezuelan exodus is likely to become the world’s biggest migration crisis as early as next year. By then, barring political and economic changes in Venezuela, there may be more Venezuelan refugees than Syrian refugees.

Already, the number of Venezuelans who have fled their country’s humanitarian crisis since 2014 is larger than each of the entire populations of Panama, Uruguay and Croatia. Many of them are literally walking to countries across the hemisphere in search of food and medicines, he told me.

“If the situation doesn’t change, we may be talking about 5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees by December this year,” Smolansky told me. “There are reliable estimates that the number may reach 6 million by the first quarter of 2020, and 8 million by the end of 2020.”

My opinion: The only way to stop the Venezuelan exodus will be to oust Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, and holding free elections to restore the rule of law. People are fleeing Venezuela not only because of a 10 million percent annual inflation rate and a minimum wage of only $2 a month, but also because of the Maduro regime’s brutal repression.

Almost 7,000 people have been killed during security operations by Maduro’s death squads since the beginning of 2018, according to Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

But while the international community steps up pressure on the Maduro regime to allow free elections, countries should also grant at least temporary residence to those fleeing from Venezuela’s dictatorship.

The Trump administration should give TPS to Venezuelan migrants right away. It is ironic — and morally repugnant — that the richest country in the Americas is among the least willing to extend an open hand to Venezuelan refugees.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera