BOGOTA, Colombia — Since fleeing Venezuela three years ago to escape a socialist dictatorship and the country's worst-ever economic collapse, Isaias Bello has lived in legal limbo.
As an undocumented migrant in neighboring Colombia, he feared being deported while employers frequently took advantage. He recalls working 10-hour shifts at a construction site for a daily wage of about $8, far less than minimum wage of about $12 a day. In other cases, migrants worked in exchange for food.
That's why Bello was delighted when Colombian President Iván Duque unveiled a program this month that will allow undocumented Venezuelan migrants to legally live and work in Colombia for up to 10 years.
"Colombia is providing us with a huge opportunity," says Bello, 26, who now makes a living picking gooseberries on a farm just outside Bogotá. "I feel very, very happy."
So do many of his fellow migrants. Of the 5.4 million Venezuelans who have left their country over the past six years, nearly 2 million have resettled in Colombia. About half of these newcomers lack legal status, having crossed into Colombia on smuggling trails because they lacked passports and other documents required for legal entry.
Duque said his new measure will help Colombian authorities vaccinate Venezuelans for the coronavirus as well as keep tabs on migrants and deport those involved in crimes. He pledged that it will become easier for migrants to gain access to health care and schooling for their children.
In addition, Colombia stands to benefit from Venezuela's brain drain, as newly arrived doctors, teachers and engineers will now be able pursue their careers there.
This open-door policy, which is reminiscent of the way German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed an influx of refugees starting in 2015, has won praise from the Biden administration and Pope Francis. Filippo Grandi, who heads the U.N. Refugee Agency, called it "one of the most important humanitarian gestures" in South America in more than three decades.
But for Colombia, there are also financial considerations. Duque said he expects his policy will lead to more foreign aid to deal with the migrant crisis, which is expected to get much worse. The International Monetary Fund predicts that by the end of 2023, as many as 10 million Venezuelans will have fled their country.
So far, international aid to help the countries receiving Venezuelans has been paltry. According to a study by scholars at the Brookings Institution, foreign donors have provided about $1.4 billion for Venezuelan migrants in the past five years — less than 7% of what has been spent on Syrians since they began fleeing their war-ravaged nation.
Even though the numbers of Venezuelan and Syrian refugees are similar, "there continues to be a massive gap when it comes to funding from the international community to assist the receiving countries," Brookings scholars Dany Bahar and Meagan Dooley wrote on Friday.
In his speech, Duque urged other Latin American nations to follow what he called Colombia's "transcendental" example.
But an economic downturn brought on the by pandemic has turned many South Americans against migrants, who are often unfairly blamed for crime and unemployment. In January, Peru — the most popular South American destination for migrants after Colombia — sent tanks to its border with Ecuador to halt the flow of undocumented Venezuelans there. And the Chilean military this month airlifted more than 100 migrants back to Venezuela.
In a Gallup poll released last year, 69% of Colombians had an unfavorable view of Venezuelan migrants.
"If you are a low-income Colombian, you might feel that the government has failed to provide for your well-being and is now paying more attention to the plight of Venezuelans," says Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a Bogotá consulting firm.
On the gooseberry farm that employs Bello and several other Venezuelans, some of their Colombian coworkers are already grousing about the new policy.
"I think Duque made a mistake," says Julián Garzón, as he uses a scissors to clip ripe yellow gooseberries from their branches.
He complains that Venezuelans are taking jobs that should rightfully go to Colombians. Instead of legalizing undocumented Venezuelans, he says, the Colombian government should help them go back to their own country and find work there.
Despite the short-term costs for emergency food, housing and health care, research shows that most countries eventually benefit from migration as newcomers secure jobs, pay taxes and increase consumption. In 2019, for example, the International Monetary Fund published a study predicting that Venezuelan migrants could boost economic growth in receiving countries by up to 0.3% between 2017 and 2030.
"I have no doubt that Venezuelan migrants will, over the medium and long term, generate a lot of good for Colombia," says Luis Fernando Mejía, the director of Fedesarrollo, a Bogotá economic research institute.
The new policy is also transforming the image of Duque, Colombia's youngest elected president. The 44-year-old conservative politician has spent much of his 2 1/2 years in office bogged down with anti-government protests and the coronavirus pandemic, and critics have slammed him as a weak leader. Guzmán says the fact that he's sticking with his refugee policy, even though it's unpopular among his own people, makes his commitment all the more admirable.
"Duque has always been on the right side of this issue," he says. "This makes his legacy, in terms of international migration, something to stand on for the rest of his life."