Comment: U.S. policy is responsible for Venezuelan refugees

Trump’s and Biden’s economic sanctions created the refugee crisis. The onus is on the U.S. to fix this.

By Matthew Yglesias / Bloomberg News

The idea of tackling the “root causes” of migration and asylum flows is the kind of high-minded notion likely to be dismissed by politicians such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who brag that they are actually doing something about the immigrants showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border while other officials just talk. Yet a look at the reasons so many Venezuelans are seeking asylum shows that there are some pretty obvious steps the U.S. could take that would reduce incentives to make the perilous journey.

Spoiler alert: These steps do not include loading the migrants onto buses or airplanes and sending them to blue states.

Venezuela is subject to some fairly crippling economic sanctions first imposed under President Donald Trump and continued by President Biden. The sanctions are hardly the only cause of Venezuela’s economic misery, but they do contribute to it; indeed, that’s the whole point. If the U.S. lifted the sanctions, the economic situation in Venezuela would improve and fewer people could come.

If the U.S. doesn’t want to lift sanctions, then it has an obligation to do something for the people fleeing.

That doesn’t necessarily need to mean giving them permission to live and work in the U.S. After all, to get from there to here requires first passing through a number of countries, with Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia as the first stop. Republicans who think the arrival of Venezuelans at the border is an intolerable burden should consider how much more difficult the situation is for the authorities in Bogotá, who are dealing with a much larger flow of people and have fewer resources. Where is the legislation appropriating a multibillion-dollar aid package for Colombia to resettle Venezuelan refugees as an alternative to them heading north to the U.S.?

The answer, of course, is that such legislation doesn’t exist.

And this is what rankles so much about recent stunts by Abbott, of Texas, and especially Florida’s DeSantis. Their goal is to discomfit Democratic Party politicians by dumping asylum seekers in their states with deliberately minimal preparation.

As a midterm election stunt, this is excellent stuff. The polling is very clear that the public does not approve of Biden’s handling of immigration, yet trusts Democrats much more than Republicans on the question of abortion rights. So Republicans will do whatever they can to increase the salience of immigration and reduce that of abortion. (Even me writing a column complaining about the cynicism of this gambit plays into their hands! It’s genuinely a very good political gambit.)

But they claim to be doing something more than a stunt. They say they are trying to call attention to the situation at the border and get Biden to do something about it. The problem is they never say exactly what.

Back when Barack Obama was president, he attempted a significant diplomatic opening with Cuba that included easing of America’s long-standing embargo on that country. Near the end of his term, he followed up on that opening by rescinding the unusually generous treatment that people fleeing Cuba used to receive from the U.S. government.

Agree or disagree with him, Obama was pursuing a coherent effort to bring to a belated end the Latin American Cold War. But Obama never achieved bipartisan buy-in for this idea, and under Trump the U.S. reversed course; re-sanctioning Cuba, sanctioning Venezuela, and sanctioning Nicaragua.

Trump reversing Obama on trade while keeping his immigration restrictions in place has landed the U.S. in a muddle that Biden has continued. If the U.S. wants to return to the old approach of trying to crush leftist regimes economically, then it is obliged to care about the welfare of those fleeing these regimes. In particular, Republicans — who are the most vociferous in favor of sanctions and the most alarmed by irregular flows of migrants — have an obligation to figure out what they want to do.

Housing migrants elsewhere in Latin America is probably workable and has certain advantages in terms of transportation logistics and language compatibility. But if that’s the plan, the U.S. should deliver real financial resources to help out.

Alternatively, a welcoming approach — even if limited to these particular groups of migrants for whom Republicans have traditionally expressed concern — could be a big win for the United States. Cuban American South Florida is a huge cultural and economic success story. Right now, Florida is one of 18 states that has an unemployment rate of below 3 percemt. The Federal Reserve is raising interest rates in an effort to close the gap between the number of job vacancies and the number of unemployed people.

An alternative would be to fill at least some of the vacancies with people fleeing countries where — in part thanks to U.S. policy — there are no jobs. That could even include transporting migrants out of El Paso and other border towns into blue cities with pro-immigrant politics and a need for more workers. But the goal should be to create a well-organized system to connect people with work, not to try to maximize inconvenience to generate headlines.

More broadly, Republicans are right that Americans deserve secure borders. In that context, revisions to asylum law to discourage uncontrolled flows of people around the Western Hemisphere should absolutely be on the table.

But they also ought to recognize the interconnection of different policy areas. If the domestic economy is overheated, immigrants can help with that. If the U.S. wants to punish Venezuela with sanctions, it has an obligation to do something for Venezuelans fleeing despair. And welcoming more of them in a well-organized way is probably the best, most efficient option.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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