For Venezuelans in Colombia, the Long Path to Legal Residency

Although providing the 10-year residence permits promised last year has been a complicated process, many maintain hope for a more stable future.

February 16, 2022

People queue at the Proyecto Florecer community kitchen in Medellín, which offers free lunches to neighbors, many of whom are Venezuelan migrants. (Yennifer Dallmann Villa)

In a hair dye factory in Medellín, Colombia, Yaricel del Carmen Vielma sat facing a bare concrete wall, rushing to meet her weekly quota. During every eight-hour shift, she filled tiny tubes with aspirin-sized pellets of dye and packed them into cardboard containers the size of matchboxes. First one box, she explained, then the next, and the next, “and on and on for thousands, thousands, thousands.”

Another employee sat near her, but talking was not allowed. All Vielma heard was the whirring of the fans, the click of pellets filling tubes, and the scrape of folding cardboard as she dreamed of the paycheck to come and scrambled to fill 5,000 boxes by the end of the week.

But when payday finally arrived, Vielma’s boss handed her only half of what he had promised, leaving her unable to pay rent or buy groceries. Vielma fumed. As an unregistered Venezuelan living in Colombia, she had no recourse with her boss and little hope of finding a better job.

All that was supposed to change. On February 8, 2021, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that the country would begin to regularize the status of the nearly two million Venezuelans taking refuge in the country, making it possible for Vielma and others to finally emerge from the underground economy. So far, 1.8 million Venzuelans have registered. But only about 300,000 Venezuelans have completed the process, and many have yet to see the benefits promised by the temporary protection status.

After Syria, Venezuela is the country with the largest number of displaced people. Almost a third of the more than 6 million Venezuelans who have migrated are now in Colombia, more than in any other country. Colombia’s initiative grants those living in the country “Permission for Temporary Protection” (PPT in Spanish), a 10-year status that will allow them to work legally and access healthcare, financing opportunities, and education. Venezuelans who have arrived since January 31, 2021 have until November 2023 to begin the process, but only if they entered through official entry points. Venezuelans, like Vielma, who entered Colombia before January 31, 2021—regardless of migration status—have until May 28, 2022. Despite its limitations, for many Venezuelans, obtaining regular status offers the chance to trade their precarious lives on the margins of Colombian society for more stability.

Responding to the Exodus

The crisis in Venezuela has been years in the making. In the early 2000s, enjoying a windfall from high global oil prices, President Hugo Chávez invested heavily in programs that slashed poverty and significantly improved other socioeconomic indicators, though corruption and mismanagement were also rampant. In 2013, shortly after president Nicolás Maduro took office, oil prices plummeted, dragging the country’s economy down. Within a few years, hyperinflation spiraled, spiking to over 53 million percent by 2019, according to Venezuela’s Central Bank.

Increased U.S. sanctions aggravated the crisis, undermining Venezuela’s economy and disrupting imports. Food became scarce and food prices skyrocketed. According to a 2021 national survey on living conditions, food distribution programs designed to help the country’s poorest have lost coverage since 2015, and a quarter of the population now experiences hunger.

Since 2017, regular power outages and government-mandated rationing have left homes, hospitals, and businesses without reliable electricity and water. The supply chain also broke down for medicines and other basic necessities. Previously eradicated diseases reappeared, and other health issues received inadequate care.

Vielma’s family left Venezuela in 2017 and spent the next two years searching for a more stable life. After leaving Mérida, they lived for a year in a Colombian town near the Venezuelan border. Then Peru, second to Colombia as a leading host of Venezuelan migrants, began offering one-year temporary resident permits to Venezuelans, a short-term version of Colombia’s current initiative. So in 2018, like thousands of others, they made their way to Peru. When Vielma’s husband had an accident at work, the cost of medical care quickly ate up their meager savings. The family decided to return to Colombia, hoping once again that things would be better elsewhere.

Shortly after Vielma re-entered Colombia, Duque announced the regularization initiative. The plan made global headlines, and during a Sunday prayer at the Vatican, Pope Francis thanked Colombia for having “the bravery to look at those migrants and make this statute.” Shortly after, Spain committed 120 million euros to support Colombia’s ongoing peace and reconciliation processes and the PPT effort.

While many praised Colombia for this humanitarian act, some called the initiative a calculated move that may oversell the country’s actual capacity to support new residents.

“This opens the door for huge amounts of financial or international aid,” said New York University Latin American historian and former NACLA Executive Editor, Alejandro Velasco. “I'm just not sure we're convinced that Colombia's health and social welfare infrastructure is equipped to handle a million registered users.”

Shortly after announcing the plan, Duque admitted that one goal was to encourage educated Venezuelans to settle long-term in Colombia, contributing to the economy and hopefully fueling investment. In June, the International Donors’ Conference in Solidarity with Venezuelan Refugees and Migrants raised $1.5 billion for Latin American countries where Venezuelans have settled.

In what seemed like a complementary humanitarian act, the U.S. government opened Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans last March. Then in January, reports surfaced that Venezuelans who were caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and had previously lived in Colombia were being sent back there, citing concerns about Covid-19. The Colombian government has denied the rumors of a deal with the United States to return 6,000 Venezuelans.

Experts also warn that although PPT lasts 10 years, it is still a temporary solution. Venezuelans must choose between PPT and pursuing refugee status, which though permanent does not offer legal permission to work while a case is being processed, which can take years. As a result, many have forfeited their right to asylum and the protections it grants in favor of the PPT and the chance to work.

Customs at the border between Colombia and Venezuela (Wilsanmo, Wikimedia Commons)

A Challenge and an Opportunity

After all the hype, the PPT rollout has been slower and more complicated than anticipated. On May 5, Colombia’s border agency, Migración Colombia, opened the registration process with a nearly three-hour event live-streamed on Facebook. The goal was to issue identification documents to 800,000 migrants by the end of the year.

“This is a huge challenge,” Migración Colombia’s Director-General Juan Francisco Espinosa Palacios said during the event. “But here at Migración, we are committed to achieving it.”

Five days after Migración Colombia opened the registration platform, the count on its website showed that 130,000 people had signed up, taking the first step toward regularization. But, the platform repeatedly crashed, overwhelmed by the demand.

“You try and get on the page, and you can start writing your name, and then plop! It leaves you hanging,” said Yndira Carolina Orozco, who has been living in Medellín for over two years with her three children. “It’s torture.” She was eager to seize the opportunity because for her, PPT represents an opportunity for her kids to get a good education.

Even without the technical delays, the process was expected to take months. During the May 5 Facebook live launch, Espinosa predicted that the soonest that anyone would complete the three-phase process and get an ID proving their legal status would be October 2021.

According to the Migración Colombia website, over 1.8 million Venezuelans have registered on the platform and about 500,000 have been approved, but only around 300,000 have completed the process and received their ID.

“This is an ambitious process to regularize the status of 1.8 million people, so naturally, it will take time,” said Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) Program Associate Kristen Martinez-Gugerli. Due to the slow start, she thinks it is too soon to judge the impact of the PPT initiative, but insisted, “It’s an unprecedented measure.”

Migración Colombia did not respond to a request for comments on the initiative’s progress and future. According to its Facebook page, the organization recently began organizing events across the country to mass-distribute the approved PPT permits. With the first deadline only three months away, many migrants are still unsure how to access the benefits from PPT.

Change Just Out of Reach

While the promise of regularization provides legal access to education, employment, health care and finances, it does not create new opportunities. Colombia has some of the highest income inequality in Latin America. Decades of conflict has displaced 7.6 million Colombians, making it the country with the largest internally displaced population in the world. Validating foreign degrees in Colombia is a complicated and costly process, so even people with professional backgrounds are often forced to take informal and low-wage jobs, living in low-income neighborhoods beside displaced Colombians facing similarly difficult situations.

Efraín Gil began his PPT registration process in August and was assigned an appointment for February. Since entering Colombia in 2019 and acquiring a work permit, Gil has had many informal jobs: working in restaurants and clothing shops, painting houses, picking up trash, loading trucks, and whatever else he can find to support his family. While he recognizes the legal importance of the PPT initiative for those who entered informally, he doubts that it will help him.

“It doesn’t necessarily help with the job part,” he said. “Many people don’t like to work with Venezuelans. This doesn’t create more jobs.”

And even with legal permission to work, Venezuelans often face discrimination. Many are rejected from jobs or exploited because of their nationality. With elections approaching, intolerance is rising, and politicians have made xenophobic statements.

“Venezuelans are scapegoated for everything from the spread of Covid to rising crime rates to organized crime,” said Martinez-Gugerli. “It’s something that we need to bring more attention to. The rhetoric is out of control.”

Accessing health care also remains a challenge. Although Colombia has subsidized health care options, it does not have universal health care. Although Venezuelans who have completed the PPT process can register for health care, accessing those services can be complicated. Clarifying the widespread misinformation and confusion would require a concerted effort by the government and private sector, said Lucía Ramírez Bolívar, a migration researcher at the Colombian legal nonprofit, Dejusticia.

“The problem is, this government only has a few months left,” Ramírez Bolívar said. The May 28 registration deadline is one day before Colombia's presidential elections, and an administration change could mean an extension or a discontinuation of the initiative. “I hope they get to work informing about the benefits.”

Hector Vega Chourio, who works for the Colombian delivery app, Rappi, said his coworkers who have completed the PPT process have not accessed many of the promised services. He thinks that chance will be granted eventually.

Echoing a view expressed by many on the Migración Facebook page, Chourio said, “I imagine that later, when we all have the permit, there will be an order, an announcement, that we can all open bank accounts, get healthcare, and other things.”

Chourio dreams of returning to Venezuela, but for now, life is better in Colombia than elsewhere. He is in the final step of the PPT process and plans to get health insurance and a motorbike license once his status is approved.

“The government here has been one of the first to open their doors to Venezuelans, to defend us,” he said. “We have faith that things will get better for us.”

As for Vielma, she stopped responding to interview requests for this story after her husband had another accident at work. According to her friends, she quit the hair dye factory. For a while, they searched for new jobs together until Vielma found one and fell out of touch. Vielma’s friends said they occasionally dreamed about opening a business together once they had a regular immigration status. But the real dream is a steady job, the chance to make a living, to make a life.

Liza Schmidt is the web editor for NACLA and a graduate student at New York University, pursuing dual master's degrees in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

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