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Latin American diplomats: US lacks authority to seek help on Venezuela migrant crisis

Thousands of Venezuelans are seen entering Colombia at the immigration check point on the Simon Bolivar Bridge in Cucuta, Colombia on June 10, 2018. (CJuan Torres/NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS)

Latin American diplomats say the United States lacks moral authority to encourage the region to take steps it’s unwilling to take in the Venezuelan migration crisis because of the Trump administration’s own border policies, according to more than a half-dozen current and former diplomats and officials in Latin America and Washington.

Latin American diplomats applaud the United States’ latest $6 million contribution in aid for Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, but they say the Trump administration could do more to build a regional coalition, offer more resources — and relax some of his policies to take more migrants.

“It’s contradictory when asking for this and then in your own backyard they’re separating families,” said one Latin American diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorized to publicly discuss U.S. policy. “I don’t understand it. All of us who are up-to-date on the migration issue understand it’s radical and contradictory to do one thing with one hand and do something else with the other.”

U.S. and Latin American officials are already describing the migration crisis out of Venezuela as a Syria-like emergency in which more than 2 million Venezuelans have fled across Latin America.

The United States has both imposed stiff financial sanctions that limit the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from raising needed capital and provided humanitarian aid to Colombian and Brazilian agencies that are feeding, clothing and sheltering migrants.

In the past, the United States has led international responses to various migration crises such as when it welcomed tens of thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. More than a quarter-million Salvadorans received special protections in the United States after a 2001 earthquake and tens of thousands of Haitians were granted protective status after the 2010 earthquake.

Members of Congress from both parties have asked South American governments to “open their countries to Venezuelan refugees” and assist humanitarian efforts.

The calls have only raised eyebrows from leaders in the region who want the United States’ assistance, but also struggle with the contrasting messages.

“You’re asking me to open our borders … and you?” said one South American diplomat. “It’s fine, but why are you not also accepting more Venezuelans.”

In 2016, President Barack Obama led a call to help Syrian refugees when he announced to the United Nations General Assembly that the United States would accept 110,000 Syrians. But Latin American leaders do not expect a similar call from President Donald Trump, whose focus is “America First,” which means clamping down on migration to the United States.

The Trump administration currently faces its own domestic battle over immigration after imposing a “zero tolerance” policy at the southern U.S. border, which led to family separation, in response to a spring surge of migrants, primarily from Central America. It also tightened asylum rules and has been phasing out Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans.

In June, Vice President Mike Pence pledged millions of dollars in additional humanitarian aid for fleeing Venezuelans and thanked Brazil for accepting more migrants. During the same Latin American trip, Pence called on citizens of the region to “respect” U.S. borders.

“Don’t risk your lives or the lives of your children by trying to come to the United States on the road run by drug smugglers and human traffickers,” Pence said in Brazil before delivering a similar message in Guatemala. “If you can’t come legally, don’t come at all.”

Michael Camilleri, who served as director for Andean affairs at the National Security Council under Obama, said U.S. migration policies are resonating in Latin America, but to be a regional leader it must have “more skin in the game” in the Venezuelan crisis.

“In order to play that role, the U.S. will have to have a strong leg to stand on,” said Camilleri, who now leads the Inter-American Dialogue’s Rule of Law Program. “And a domestic migration policy that’s seen as so toxic by the very countries that are being asked to assume some of these burdens I think can only handicap the United States capacity to play that role effectively.”

Confidence in American leadership has sunk in many nations around the world, particularly in Latin America, according to a poll last summer by the Pew Research Center that found just 22 percent had faith that Trump would do the right thing. In Mexico, only 5 percent of those interviewed had confidence in Trump. In Colombia it was 15 percent; in Peru, 17 percent; In Argentina, 13 percent; and in Chile, 12 percent.

This is not a new dilemma for a White House.

The challenge of finding third countries in the hemisphere to take in migrants is a long-standing challenge that long predates the Trump administration, “irrespective of the ebb and flow of U.S. global standing,” said Eric Farnsworth, who served at the State Department during the Cuban and Haitian refugee crises of the early 1990s.

A spokesman for the National Security Council noted the United States’ generous history of accepting immigrants. The official pointed out that Venezuelans currently top the number of applicants for asylum in the United States. More than 58,000 Venezuelans have applied for asylum in the last three years.

“We feel things are not going to improve until the political and economic conditions that are responsible for the crisis are addressed,” the NSC official said, speaking on condition of anonymity per policy.

According to statistics compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, the number of asylum claims from Venezuelans has spiked across the region.

Brazil saw a jump in Venezuelan asylum applications from 290 in 2014 to almost 18,000 in 2017; Peru from 65 applications in 2014 to 90,000 in the first six months of 2018; Mexico from 56 in 2014 to over 4,000 in 2017; Costa Rica from 129 in 2014 to over 3,000 in 2017; Panama from 88 to over 4,000; and Chile from only 2 in 2014 to over 1,300 in 2017.

The Trump administration has told McClatchy that it is discussing a possible increase in Venezuelan asylum seekers at the southern border due to the ongoing humanitarian crises.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has led the U.S. humanitarian effort helping raise nearly $37 million for the regional Venezuelan crisis. On Monday, USAID director, Mark Green, announced the latest $6 million aid package for health and nutrition programs for Venezuelans crossing into Colombia.

“This humanitarian crisis continues to plague the region and affect the stability of its neighbors, which is why we need a regional and international approach to bring democracy back to Venezuela,” Green said.

This month, the United Nations completed an agreement on ways to handle the global flow of migrants, but the United States withdrew from negotiations last December as the Trump administration hardened its positions on migration and asylum seekers.

Mimicking the Trump administration, some countries have already taken steps to tighten their border controls as the public has begun complaining to elected officials about extra competition for jobs.

“When you go to a restaurant in Latin American and the servers are Venezuelans, that means they’re hiring Venezuelans instead of Ecuadorians, Peruvian, Brazilian or Colombian servers,” said one diplomat. “Go anywhere and you’ll see.”

Nonetheless, Latin American leaders want the United States to get more involved and pushed U.S. leaders to work more closely with the United Nations and Organization of American States to coordinate relief efforts to maximize their potential.

Fernando Carrera, the foreign minister of Guatemala in 2013 and 2014, understands the diplomatic complaints, but said it will not change the reality that governments must deal with incoming Venezuelan migrants.

“Even if in diplomatic circles, leaders say to Washington we will not accept more people if you don’t accept more of our nationals or you don’t have the moral conviction to tell us we should accept more people while you’re not accepting,” Carrera said. “The practicality is the flow of Venezuelans to Brazil, Peru and Colombia will continue.”


© 2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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