In April, the Biden administration launched Uniting for Ukraine (U4U), an innovative program that offers Ukrainians a fast-track pathway to the U.S. if they have a sponsor. Since its inception, more than 38,000 Ukrainians have entered the country through this pathway, and 75,000 more are approved and awaiting travel. Backing those Ukrainians are more than 109,000 U.S. sponsors from all 50 states. After just four months of operation, U4U has become one of the most successful components of the U.S. humanitarian response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It also serves as a proof of concept for the proposition that American sponsors can help vulnerable populations across the globe.
U4U relies on humanitarian parole, which gives the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to admit noncitizens on a case-by-case basis for “urgent humanitarian or significant public benefit.” DHS has explained that the U4U process is designed to be a “safe, legal, and orderly pathway.” Beneficiaries need to pass biometric and biographic screenings, and sponsors must submit to background checks and prove they have the financial means to support refugees.
State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Sarah Cross describes the Uniting for Ukraine program model as a new “protection tool.” The program brings together approved beneficiaries and sponsors in weeks, as opposed to the years it can take to come through traditional refugee channels. There is no fee to apply nor a numerical cap. Beneficiaries enjoy modern, digital processing without having to visit an embassy or consulate.
Given the considerable demand from private-sector sponsors to assist refugees and the desperate need for orderly migration channels from displacement crises in our own hemisphere, the Biden administration should expand the Uniting model to include people fleeing Venezuela in a new program: Volunteering for Venezuela (V4V). Venezuela is experiencing widespread hunger and mass displacement in the face of severe economic, political, and social distress unleashed by a regime hostile to the United States, democracy, and its own people. While exact estimates are difficult to determine, some measures put Venezuela’s inflation rate at 137 percent in the last year.
The Maduro regime continues to cling to power through hundreds of extrajudicial killings and widespread human rights abuses, ranging from torture and sexual assault by state forces to arbitrary mass arrests. As a result, more than 1.8 million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia, 1.2 million to Peru, and more than 500,000 to Ecuador. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Venezuela is now the second-largest external displacement crisis in the world.
The country’s food shortage is one of the most shocking aspects of its collapse, with Venezuelans losing a reported average of 24 pounds in 2017. According to a 2020 report by Caritas, 57 percent of Venezuelan households are food-deprived. Since the government uses access to food as a means of controlling the population and quelling dissent, it is unlikely that this aspect of the crisis will improve as long as the regime remains in power.
Republicans and Democrats unite on Venezuela
In a rare instance of agreement, former President Trump and President Biden have both supported permitting Venezuelans currently in the U.S. to stay rather than forcing them to return to a country devastated by crisis, and they have found a bipartisan, bicameral echo.
In 2021, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) supported the Biden administration’s expansion of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelans, stating, “Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the violence and starvation of Maduro’s socialist regime and the United States must stand with them. We must continue to do everything in our power to save Venezuela from this tyrannical dictator.”
Similarly, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, “The human cost of the Maduro narco-regime’s humanitarian debacle has resulted in the displacement of 6 million Venezuelans worldwide. Responsible nations in our region continue to lend a helping hand as Venezuelan migrants and refugees flee the hardships of tyranny and oppression.”
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to the Biden administration noting that Venezuelans were “fleeing the political, economic and humanitarian crisis currently plaguing their home.” Representative Maria Salazar (R-FL) said, “We have a fundamental obligation to provide safe haven for those [Venezuelans] fleeing tyranny and oppression.”
In particular, the conservative antipathy for socialist dictatorships creates a unique transpartisan opportunity to broaden the Uniting for Ukraine program and include Venezuelans. Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) recently signed legislation to observe “victims of communism” day and specifically referenced Venezuelans and other populations who fled the oppression of communist regimes.
The success of the Uniting for Ukraine program model, the bipartisan calls for protection, and the strong community of Venezuelans in the U.S. underscore the urgency of expanding the model to Venezuelans, particularly given the regional implications of the deteriorating situation there.
Volunteering for Venezuela is in the U.S. national interest
The U.S. is not isolated from the implications of the Venezuela crisis. Coinciding with the country’s economic collapse, apprehensions of Venezuelans on the southern border are expected to triple by the end of fiscal year 2022.
Launching V4V could mitigate some irregular migration, as occurred with Ukrainian migrants after the launch of U4U. Reducing the surge of Venezuelans would also help ease the strain on the Mexican immigration enforcement authorities, whom the U.S. relies on to manage regional migration.
In the past, the U.S. relied on the refugee resettlement program as the default mechanism to tackle displacement. Yet years of sabotage by the Trump administration and tepid interest from this administration have left it operating as a shell of its former self. Nearly everyone agrees that Venezuelans are being persecuted, but the U.S. has resettled fewer than 100 this year.
The Uniting for Ukraine program model has proven better suited to crisis response than the refugee resettlement process, which takes two or more years and is dependent on complex international coordination.
Although reforming the refugee admissions program is necessary, the Uniting model can provide a separate, more agile pathway. It can more quickly respond to war, environmental disaster, or mass persecution with implications for the U.S. national interest, as is the case in Ukraine or Venezuela. It can complement a poorly-functioning resettlement system that will take years to rebuild, and provide a lifeline to displaced individuals who need urgent relief.
In addition to the clear-cut humanitarian case and the potential to tamp down irregular migration, there is also a strategic case for adding V4V. Demonstrating solidarity with the victims of authoritarian regimes burnishes the American claim to leadership of the free world. Accepting refugees helps alleviate the burden on traditional regional allies like Colombia and Chile, where many Venezuelans have fled. Finally, inviting refugees to experience American political freedoms and standards of living allows us to counteract the anti-American propaganda of the Venezuelan regime.
Volunteering for Venezuela
Niskanen initially endorsed U4U because of its potential to transform U.S. humanitarian programs. In the spring, it was an untested proposal with sound underpinnings. Now, the program has proven effective in aiding Ukrainians, mobilizing Americans in their support, and adding new protection options to the U.S. migration toolkit.
Though some detractors of the Uniting model cite serious equity concerns over the expedited processing of European versus non-European populations, these critiques support the program’s expansion, not retraction. Whatever one thinks about the prioritization of Ukrainians, the model now exists and can be expanded to help Afghans, Cubans, and other displaced individuals.
It could also be a much-needed lifeline for Venezuelans. With the back-end infrastructure built and tested, a future iteration like V4V may be quickly and safely implemented. There are already robust public-private partnerships around the country to support sponsors, and tens of thousands of sponsors with learned experience. All of this built-in infrastructure can be used as the administration doubles down on its own success.
Finally, the enormous interest from Americans for refugee sponsorship is widespread across the U.S., from conservative suburbs to liberal urban enclaves. Nearly 50,000 U4U sponsors come from outside the top 10 metropolitan areas. Our analysis of DHS data finds that among the top 25 sponsor zip codes, 64 percent are suburban, 32 percent urban, and 4 percent rural. DHS official Adam Hunter has praised the supporter-based model for tapping into “the sense of interest, welcome, and generosity of Americans of all stripes around the country.”
The more than 109,000 U.S. sponsors backing U4U are the latest wave in a larger tide of voluntary support for fleeing people that Foreign Affairs has called a “refugee revolution.” Between Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, the American public has demonstrated the willingness and capacity to welcome nearly 200,000 newcomers fleeing chaos and danger in less than 12 months.
U4U has led to more private-sector engagement than ever before in our humanitarian system — engagement that can be leveraged to build the nation’s permanent resettlement capacity by cultivating a grassroots movement of sponsors across the country. That’s why applying the Uniting for Ukraine model to Venezuela is a sound next step for the Biden administration. It’s a safe, tried-and-true bet politically, and more importantly, an essential humanitarian lifeline to Venezulans in pursuit of freedom to live a better life.
It’s time for the Biden administration to expand the successful Uniting for Ukraine program and launch Volunteering for Venezuela.
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