President Trump has been no friend of refugees from places like Syria and Iraq, or asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador. But the escalating humanitarian and political crisis in Venezuela warrants American action. Congressional leaders—Republicans and Democrats alike— should press the president to re-examine his posture towards refugees and asylum seekers and use the refugee program strategically to undermine a brutal socialist dictator wreaking chaos and desperation among his people.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled their homes in recent years, comprising one of the largest mass exoduses in Latin American history. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has said, “The tragic situation in Venezuela calls out for action. The Venezuelan people are starving while their government tramples their democracy.”
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Venezuela is in an “economic free fall” resulting from “government-led mismanagement and corruption.” Food is scarce, the health care system has collapsed, violence is skyrocketing, and Nicolas Maduro’s regime is imprisoning political opponents, barring opposition parties, and shuttering the free press.
In a recent report, the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) notes the “implementation of highly socialist policies, such as in Venezuela, have been associated with high emigration.”
The United States may have few options to address the root causes of such an exodus, but certainly has a role to play in mitigating the damage as this worsening crisis threatens regional security, destabilizes allies, and imperils U.S. national security and geopolitical interests.
Refugee resettlement and asylum approval provide the U.S. government with a diplomatic avenue for addressing its national security and foreign policy concerns in Venezuela — what’s more, there is ample historical precedent for deploying these tools.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. government recognized the strategic value of refugee resettlement to undermine rival countries — specifically, through the implementation of the “Priority 2” refugee distinction, which allowed specific groups with special humanitarian concerns access to the U.S. refugee admissions program.
Cuban dissidents, former Soviet nationals, and certain religious minorities were resettled through this stream.
In a paper for the Niskanen Center, Idean Salehyan wrote that “arrivals from foreign adversaries, especially communist regimes during the Cold War, were often given priority as a way to embarrass rival governments for their poor human rights records and drain them of human resources.”
Welcoming Venezuelans into the United States would do just that: expose the Maduro regime illegitimacy, while encouraging high-level defections from the regime, and usher in immigrants who can enrich our economy, to boot. The same CEA report cites a Wall Street Journal article that finds businesspeople, university professors, oil and agriculture industry professionals, doctors, and other health care professionals are leaving Venezuela en masse.
Moreover, welcoming political refugees escaping the Maduro regime sends a clear message to the rest of the world that the United States is still a haven for individuals escaping political, social, and economic repression.
Scholars at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, noted in a 2017 report that even resettling small numbers “sends a message of solidarity and support to important allies.” They added that the refugee program “strengthens U.S. public diplomacy” by enhancing our reputation as a force for good in the world even as it “tangibly alleviates human suffering.”
In the paper we mentioned above, Salehyan explains that although refugee admissions are often seen as a purely charitable or humanitarian act, the true historical record indicates strategic foreign policy priorities always played a key role. He writes, “From the very beginning, refugee resettlement policies were guided by genuine concern for displaced people as well as U.S. geopolitical interests.”
For example, from 1996 to 1999, just 5 percent of total refugee admissions came from countries that were not within the former USSR, strategic rivals, or sites of U.S. military engagements. Our humanitarian programs — both refugee resettlement and asylum approval — and our security interests have always been linked.
As 20 senior military and foreign policy officials — including Henry Kissinger, Janet Napolitano, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and James Jones — wrote, “Resettlement initiatives help advance U.S. national security interests by supporting the stability of our allies and partners that are struggling to host large numbers of refugees.”
If refugee admissions are a step too far for this administration, there are a range of migration-related options to pursue. We could make strategic investments in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and international NGOs assisting in the region. Congress can pass Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s legislation to provide humanitarian assistance within Venezuela. We could provide financial assistance and technical expertise to frontline states taking the lion’s share of the refugees and asylum seekers. However, an all-of-the-above approach is best and doing one is not a substitute for the others.
Foreign policy concerns intersect with human rights concerns. The Venezuelan case exemplifies this. Opening our nation’s doors to refugees escaping the evils of totalitarian socialism bolsters our national reputation as a beacon that stands committed to freedom, liberty, democracy, and human rights.
Unfortunately, so far, the Trump administration has contradicted America’s longstanding, bipartisan tradition of providing refuge to the persecuted and displaced. Perhaps the crisis in Venezuela could give the administration the opportunity to reconsider the usefulness of refugee admissions when utilized for geopolitical, strategic, and rhetorical ends. The president has a unique opportunity to use refugee policy to his advantage, and he should take it for the good of regional security, ally partnerships, human rights, and compassion.
Senator Rubio has outlined the case for action to help Venezuela, writing, “While our sense of morality and decency alone should compel us to act, so, too, should our desire to keep our nation secure and our regional neighborhood safe. A crumbling Venezuela endangers our hemisphere.”
The GOP — the party of Reagan — can reaffirm America’s commitment to human rights and democracy and highlight the horrors of dictatorships, sending a symbolically powerful message to the rest of the world, while providing refuge to those fleeing political violence and persecution.
If President Trump were as committed to his anti-socialist worldview as he repeatedly states, welcoming Venezuelans into the U.S. would be a no-brainer. Congressional leaders should act in concerted effort to press the president to learn from our tried-and-true foreign policy playbook by welcoming the individuals fleeing Maduro’s failed government and reasserting America’s increasingly shaky stance as a global leader of democracy and humanitarianism.
Note: Idean Salehyan, Professor at the University of North Texas & Niskanen adjunct fellow, co-authored this post.