Compassionate migration policies are also the right call politically

Catherine Ellis is a freelance journalist based in Colombia who focuses on migration and human rights. She also worked for an NGO assisting Venezuelan migrants near the Colombia-Venezuela border.

More than 7.7 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela over the last decade – a quarter of the population. The vast majority of those who have left, around 84 percent, have settled in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. But difficulties in finding jobs, poor salaries and high costs of living have pushed some to pack their bags and set off once again, this time northwards towards the southern border of the United States. Politicians responding to these arrivals should resist the temptation to invoke overly restrictive measures, not only because they trample on the human rights of Venezuelans in desperate situations, but because compassionate migration policies can reduce the political salience of border arrivals, and benefit the U.S. both economically and morally.

Migration is as old as humanity, but the arrival of migrants to the southern border of the United States has been treated as a political crisis. A large wave of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the southern border over the past three years has fanned the flames – and been treated as a national crisis. In part, this is because the Republican governor of Texas has adopted a policy of shipping migrants further into the interior of the country, explicitly to burden social services in Democratic states far from the border.  As the Migration Policy Institute notes, in fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered Venezuelans 266,000 times in the Mexico-US border, a more than five-fold increase in encounters from 2021. 

President Biden, after saying in 2020 he would restore the U.S.’ ‘historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers,’ has introduced some progressive policies. Yet immigration has become more of a political headache than he envisaged. At a campaign stop in Michigan on April 2nd, former President Donald Trump called migrants ‘animals.’ At a stop in Wisconsin later that day, former Trump called Venezuelans criminals, before promising to unleash a mass deportation programme of undocumented migrants if he wins reelection in November. According to a February 2024 Gallup poll, immigration is the US electorate’s number one concern, with 28 percent of Americans saying it was the issue most important to them, and Biden has been steadily peeling back his open-arms rhetoric.

President Biden has reportedly been mulling various options for temporary border closures to stem high numbers of migrants entering the country, after a bipartisan border deal collapsed in Congress in February. Republicans didn’t think the measures, which included proposals to give the President the power to shut down the border, went far enough.

On May 9, Biden announced new proposals to assess migrants at an initial asylum screening stage, instead of during the interview stage. This would allow some percentage of asylum seekers to be turned away by officers at the border much faster than under current rules, so long as the officers deem the asylum seeker a national security or public safety risk. As Maanvi Singh wrote in The Guardian, “The proposed rule that was released on Thursday would only affect about 2 to 3% of asylum seekers, by the administration’s estimation, based on historical data. It also aims to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.”

While this change might reduce wait times at the border on the margin, it undermines long standing asylum norms, and is also unlikely to satisfy anyone in Washington, including some in the Democratic Party, who want more stringent action, including executive action to fix what they call a ‘broken immigration system.’


Waiting outside asylum

Curiously, border encounters have already been dropping this year, mildly appeasing those even within his own party who want stronger deterrence measures. In December 2023, there were 46,919 border encounters of Venezuelans but only 16,492 in March 2024, according to CBP figures. Before border hawks celebrate a slow rate of arrival as the result of punitive policies, it’s important to understand that at least some of the slowed arrival rate is because migrants haven’t stopped trying to get to the US, they’re simply stuck elsewhere.

When migrants do get to the U.S./Mexico border, they are stuck waiting for slow processing at legal entry points. Should the migrants get caught up immigration enforcement in Mexico, they may end up deported south, out of the country. Venezuelans bottlenecked in Mexico are stuck navigating the slow waiting times to secure an appointment via the CBP One app. This initiative, designed to incentivize entry at legal ports of entry along the US-Mexico border rather than crossing the border illegally, needs to process arrivals faster to more compassionately usher asylum seekers and migrants into the legal immigration process. When it works properly, the scheme allows migrants to enter the US while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. When it does not, it leaves people vulnerable.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, this wait “impermissibly limits the right to seek asylum for many people and compels them to wait in foreseeably dangerous and inhumane conditions in Mexico.” Appointments can sometimes take weeks or months to get. Many Venezuelans, often with few financial resources, often sleep in the streets or rely on overflowing migrant shelters, becoming easy targets for criminal groups. There have been disturbing tales of kidnappings, robberies and sex trafficking by criminal groups using the migration crisis for lucrative financial gains. The Washington Office on Latin America, a group that promotes human rights in the region, has recommended ramping up the number of CBP appointments and ‘urgent walk ups,’ at ports of entry as well as more asylum officers immigration judges.

Beyond issues with processing, current US policy also depends on Mexico to help the crackdown on migration, with disturbing results. Checkpoints and patrols have surged throughout the country, and police are sending migrants on buses heading southwards, or demanding exorbitant bribes for letting them pass. Mexico and the US have also recently agreed on further steps to crackdown on illegal migration, including stricter measures at railways, buses and airports. “The teamwork is paying off,” John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, told the press in April. Migrants now say it’s Mexico, not the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle spanning the Colombia-Panama border, that they fear most.


Through the sky legally

Expanding legal pathways to enter the US could help reduce the risks for Venezuelans considering traversing the Darien and then Mexico. A humanitarian parole program, where Venezuelans – and Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans – are eligible for entry to the US if they find a sponsor and arrive by air, offered hope for many Venezuelans when it was introduced in 2022. By the end of February 2024, 94,000 Venezuelans had arrived in the US through this scheme. But for those with no links to the US, finding sponsors is a challenge.

For those already in the US, ensuring they can be financially independent helps them live more dignified lives. The Temporary Protection Status (TPS) policy, which was offered to some Venezuelans in 2021 and extended to almost half a million in September 2023, enables Venezuelans to support themselves while waiting for their immigration cases to be heard. Although it doesn’t give full residency or citizenship, it enables migrants to be self-sufficient, alleviating the squeeze on overflowing migrant shelters, reducing the financial strain on cities, and helping fill vacancies in sectors such as healthcare and construction.

Extending TPS even further would provide a way for more migrants to become financially independent and contribute to the US economy. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, estimated that the labor force is projected to grow by 5.2 million by 2033, mostly due to higher net migration. Because of this it estimates GDP will grow by about $7 trillion.

TPS has long been criticized by Donald Trump, saying it attracts more migrants. But past experience shows this is not the case. A 2022 study analyzing TPS designated countries of El Salvador and Honduras found it did not lead to increased unauthorized migration and actually reduced pressure on factors driving US-bound migration.

The study’s authors say money sent home in the form of remittances helps stem further migration flows. People receiving the money in Venezuela, or other South American countries where they are settled, can buy food, medicine and other basic necessities, disincentivizing them to leave. The study found remittances sent to TPS designated countries were substantially higher compared with those countries who didn’t have TPS and the scheme reduced both irregular migration, and asylum claims.

Migration is a story of humans uprooted from their lives, gambling that a long journey to somewhere else will be reward them with a more stable future than living in the precarious conditions that have come to mark their daily lives. The majority of Venezuelans aren’t arriving at the border because of ‘the American Dream,’ but due to an economic, political and humanitarian crisis in their home country that has propelled them to leave their homes, and in many cases their families. A compassionate approach to migration will let them arrive in the United States with a warm welcome, rather than razorwire.