The Trump administration has begun informal talks with partner countries in Latin America about the United States taking in some refugees from Venezuela, a potential turnaround from its tough stance on accepting refugees from conflict-torn countries.
A senior administration official told McClatchy that while no agreements have been struck and details were scarce, U.S. officials have begun these talks “informally” as part of a larger strategy to address the hundreds of thousands of fleeing Venezuelans whose numbers threaten to destabilize partner countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Those conversations are happening,” a senior administration official said. “I’m not prepared to speak to where we’re going with those yet, but it’s certainly something that we’re looking at in terms of how the region generally is going to be absorbing all of these people flowing out of Venezuela.”
The refugee issue promises to be one of the top conversations at this year’s Summit of the Americas when the United States and more than 30 Latin American leaders will meet in Lima, Peru, this weekend to discuss the most pressing issues in the hemisphere, primarily the humanitarian and economic crisis in Venezuela.
President Donald Trump announced this week that he will skip the summit, but Vice President Mike Pence will go in his place along with an elaborate U.S. delegation that includes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who is well-versed on the issues.
The Venezuelan exodus has been a hardship for some of the United States’ best friends in the region. Colombia, which has absorbed over 600,000 Venezuelan nationals, has said the refugee crisis could undermine years of work building peace with guerrilla fighters precisely at the time it’s trying to re-establish control in formerly rebel-controlled areas.
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum has shot up 2,000 percent worldwide since 2014, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The international organization estimates 1.5 million displaced Venezuelans have spread to more than 15 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The United States says it has already absorbed thousands of Venezuelan immigrants who have come to the U.S. in the last five years.
While plans for the U.S. to accept more Venezuelan refugees are very much in its infancy stages, expectations are not high. Those who have spoken to the administration about its thinking would like the U.S. government to think more ambitiously.
“No one thinks it’s going to be huge number,” said a U.S. source familiar with the talks. “Maybe a couple thousand.”
But critics question the administration’s sincerity considering Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s history with refugees.
Since becoming president, Trump has clamped down on refugees, making it harder for those fleeing persecution to find safe haven in the United States. Early in his administration, Trump signed an executive order temporarily barring the admission of refugees from mostly Muslim countries — as well as people with ties to the autocratic Venezuelan government — which sparked legal and court battles.
Refugee admissions resumed later in the year, but under tougher guidelines. Trump said he’d allow 45,000 refugees worldwide into the country in the current fiscal year, but he has taken in fewer than that. The 45,000 acceptance number is about half the 85,000 settled in the final fiscal year of the Obama administration.
“I’d be surprised if they’re seriously considering this given the posture Trump and the administration has taken toward refugees,” said Mark Feierstein, the White House National Security Council's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama. “There is not a lot of sympathy at all. I’d be surprised if they’d reach a point where they’d actually take people in.”
But others feel the administration has little choice. Without U.S. leadership, the situation could elevate into a major regional crisis, said Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, who has pushed the administration to do more for refugees around the world.
“They’re forced to do it because it’s such a huge and emerging situation. People are pouring over the borders into Colombia and to the Caribbean,” Appleby said. “It’s really become a protracted situation. And for the United States to sit on its hands would be devastating to the region.”
But the administration is also concerned about Venezuelans fleeing north to the United States and bringing with them communicable diseases once thought rooted out. Neighbors like Colombia and others have seen cases of the measles.
The administration is also concerned about drug activity and weapons escaping Venezuelan borders.
“Ultimately the entire region is intertwined and the problems that we see coming out of Venezuela will affect us all,” the senior administration official said.
The officials said that is one for the reasons they’ve been so aggressive about pushing the Venezuelans to allow the United States to provide aid inside the country. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has so far rejected such offers while downplaying the crisis.
“We’re standing ready to bring humanitarian aid, including medicines, the second you say it’s okay,” the senior administration official said.