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Colombia Offers Legal Status To Migrants Who Fled Venezuela

NOEL KING, HOST:

More than 5 million Venezuelans left their country because of political and economic crises over the last six years. Some South American neighboring countries are telling them not to come, but not Colombia. John Otis reports on its open-door policy.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Since the refugee crisis began six years ago, Colombia has taken in more migrants from neighboring Venezuela than any other country. But about half of the 2 million Venezuelans who have settled here are undocumented. That makes it harder for migrants to find decent jobs and to gain access to health care and schooling for their children. So in a speech last month, Colombian President Ivan Duque announced a new policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT IVAN DUQUE MARQUEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Duque said Colombia would provide legal status to nearly all undocumented Venezuelans, allowing them to live and work here for up to 10 years. The surprise move won praise from the Biden administration, Pope Francis and the U.N.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FILIPPO GRANDI: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Filippo Grandi, who heads the U.N. refugee agency, called it the most important humanitarian gesture in South America in decades. The new measure will help Colombian authorities vaccinate Venezuelans for the coronavirus and allow them to keep tabs on migrants and deport those involved in crimes. Colombia also stands to benefit from Venezuela's brain drain, as newly arrived doctors, teachers and engineers will now be able to pursue their careers.

Among those pleased about President Duque's announcement is Isaias Bello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES RUSTLING)

OTIS: He's a 26-year-old Venezuelan who I meet picking gooseberries on this farm just outside of Bogota. He likes the work but says previous jobs were hellish.

ISAIAS BELLO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Bello used to work in construction, but as an undocumented Venezuelan, he says his boss could get away with paying him just $8 a day, far less than minimum wage. Some migrants work just for food. Bello predicts the legalization program will force employers to improve working conditions.

BELLO: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: "I'm very, very happy about this," Bello says. But many Colombians reject the new policy. They include Julian Garzon, who also works on the gooseberry farm.

JULIAN GARZON: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Amid the economic slump caused by the pandemic, Garzon says Venezuelans will take scarce jobs that should go to Colombians. Similar concerns, as well as outright xenophobia, are rising across South America, where countries are putting new restrictions on migrants. In January, Peru sent tanks to its border to halt the flow of undocumented Venezuelans, while the Chilean military airlifted more than 100 migrants back to Venezuela.

Here in Colombia, the fact that President Duque's migrant policy is deeply unpopular among his own people makes it all the more admirable, says political analyst Sergio Guzman.

SERGIO GUZMAN: I think Duque's always been on the right side of this issue, and this makes his legacy in terms of international migration something to stand on for the rest of his life.

OTIS: He says Duque is making the best of a refugee crisis that's expected to get much worse.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "ONTARIO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.