Small Wars Journal

The Venezuelan Exodus: A New Migrant Diaspora in the United States

Mon, 12/18/2023 - 11:23pm

The Venezuelan Exodus: A New Migrant Diaspora in the United States

Howard Campbell and Charles Larratt-Smith

Over the last year an unprecedented wave of Venezuelan immigrants flooded the US-Mexico border prompting talk of a new migrant crisis.[1] The increase in Venezuelans seeking to enter the United States builds on recent trends. Whereas there were 351,000 Venezuelan-born persons residing in the US in 2017, this figure had skyrocketed to 668,000 by 2022, a tally that is likely considerably higher due to the record surge of Venezuelans attempting to enter the country this year through legal means or otherwise.[2] For example, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency detained 54,833 Venezuelans entering the country illegally this past September alone, almost double the previous month’s total.[3]


Venezuelan food for sale on the migrant trail in downtown Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Photo by Howard Campbell, 13 July 2023.

President Biden’s decision this past September (2023) to grant temporary protective status to 500,000 Venezuelan immigrants is belated political recognition of this important social phenomenon.[4] It was quickly contrasted by a subsequent announcement by the US federal government that Venezuelans found to have entered the country illegally will be deported on flights back to their country.[5] The Democratic administration has also recently backtracked on previous positions by authorizing the construction of a border-wall in one Border Patrol sector in southern Texas that was overwhelmed with high levels of illegal entries.[6] The latter two policies build on the already punitive actions taken by Texas governor Greg Abbott, who has deployed the Texas National Guard to install razor wire and other fortifications along the border, including buoys to stop immigrants crossing the Rio Grande. Controversially, his administration has also routinely bused Venezuelan migrants to Democratic controlled “sanctuary cities” such as New York, Chicago, and Denver, overloading existing social service programs and relief efforts in these places.[7]

The ongoing Venezuelan migration to the US represents only the latest chapter of the broader out-migration of almost eight million people from Venezuela since 2014, the largest such exodus of its kind in the history of the Americas.[8] The scale and scope of the Venezuelan migration crisis and the recent impact on the US raises several important questions. Why have so many Venezuelans opted to leave their country in recent years? How have Venezuelan migrants fared in other countries and how in turn have they affected those countries that receive them? What dangers and opposition do they face on their journeys? What is the future of Venezuelan migrants in the US and how is this phenomenon impacting US-Venezuelan relations?

In this article, we draw on dozens of semi-structured interviews and informal conversations conducted between 2019 and the present by the authors with Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Mexico, and the United States. Combining these primary sources with other available academic and media-based publications, we explore why so many Venezuelans have left their country in recent years, the realities awaiting them in receiving countries and along their journeys, and what ultimately this means for this new diaspora in the United States and for the country itself.

The Push Factors behind the Venezuelan Exodus

Historically, Venezuelans migrated to the U.S. in very small numbers compared to Mexicans, Central Americans, Cubans, Haitians, and others.[9]  Venezuela was once the region’s most prosperous country and a principal destination in Latin America for European immigrants.[10] Between the end of WWII and the 1980s, Venezuela was also a receiving country for Latin American immigration, most notably of exiles and refugees hailing from the Southern Cone during the nadir of the Cold War. For decades, it remained the key destination for Colombians fleeing the armed conflict and extreme poverty in their country.[11]

The primary cause of Venezuelan out-migration is the catastrophic decline of the Venezuelan economy over the last ten years, although the country has also been wracked by constant political instability, rampant corruption, and high levels of violent crime during this period.[12] In order to understand this economic deterioration, one must look back to the ascendance of Hugo Chávez Frías. The former president first came to power in 1999 and cultivated a devoted following with his fiery underdog rhetoric and a carefully crafted populist discourse which invoked nationalist tropes and a strident anti-hegemonic posture. Chávez also dramatically expanded the Venezuelan welfare state, particularly for the benefit of the working class and the urban poor.[13] However, his mismanagement of the oil economy created the conditions for one of the worst economic collapses in recent history, an implosion which his successor, Nicolás Maduro, was left to deal with following Chávez’s death in early 2013.[14] Maduro lacked his predecessor’s charisma and ability to manage a diverse coalition of political actors; he was soon deprived of the vast oil rents that held together the ruling party due to the collapse in international oil prices over the latter half of 2014. To make matters worse, for years the state-owned oil firm, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), had long underinvested in the maintenance of oil infrastructure and therefore production was already on the decline when Maduro came to power, compounding the impact of the worsening economic contraction.[15]

Faced with a growing crisis, Maduro’s legitimacy further eroded from 2014 onwards as his regime proved unable or uninterested in addressing widespread food insecurity and skyrocketing crime rates. Instead, the embattled president focused on preserving his power through a growing recourse to electoral fraud and crackdowns on dissent.[16] Having inherited a regime that had incorporated the Venezuelan military into key political positions traditionally held by civilian officials (i.e., cabinet posts, governorships, foreign service, etc.), Maduro needed to retain its support to survive growing domestic pressures, and thus his government turned a blind eye to active and ex-military officials’ increased involvement in contraband, extortion, and drug trafficking.[17] The worsening crisis and Maduro’s prioritization of regime survival led to a severe decline in the quality of life for the average citizen. Notably, by 2017 close to three-quarters of the Venezuelan population had lost almost twenty pounds per person because of food scarcity according to a study conducted by several Venezuelan academic institutions.[18]

One retornada—a term for Colombians who lived for years in Venezuela before returning to their country of birth who relocated with her family to an informal settlement in the Colombian department of Arauca in 2017 summarizes the desperate struggle with food insecurity during this period: “When the problems began it started with the lack of food, there was no [cooking] gas or gasoline and Venezuela started to bottom out as you couldn’t get food. To buy a bag of rice or flour you had to go at 2 AM at least to wait in line and you spent the day waiting to buy it but sometimes you couldn’t. We were in need, I was stressed out and getting sick, my children are big but they are still children and at times they went lacking and I was in despair so one day I came home and I told them: I feel like going to Colombia.” Another man from Táchira who fled the country for Colombia in 2015 describes how his reduced purchasing power exacerbated this issue: “There I wasn’t making the base required to help my family buy those things. In the bakery [where I worked], the salary wasn’t enough as it was minimum wage. It was like a base pay of [$3 USD/day] and a bag of flour cost [$1 USD], so it didn’t cover our needs.”

The futility of trying to fight back against the Maduro government’s disastrous economic performance was demonstrated by its willingness to deprive citizens of their jobs, food, and even their lives, if they elected to express discontent at the ballot box or in the street. One barber from Caracas who left for Bogotá at the beginning of 2016 describes how he eventually lost his public sector job because he did not vote for the ruling party in the 2013 elections: “I had to shut up and keep my head down because I worked for the government at Red de Abastos Bicentenario [a government food wholesaler] and it was completely politicized. They realized that I had voted for [opposition candidate] Henrique Capriles Radonski and they told me that I was an escuálido [Chavista insult meaning a small pathetic person] and they said they had a way of knowing who voted for who.” Countless others were afraid to publicly express dissent during the crisis period due to the regime’s complete control of the country’s food supply through a distribution scheme known as the CLAP (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción), which exclusively sold monthly rations of basic food stuffs to families loyal to the ruling party.[19] One caraqueña who fled in 2019 for the Colombian coastal city of Riohacha recalls this trend in her community: “People there didn’t protest a lot. lf they did, they lost the benefits the government gave them.”

Many other disaffected citizens did not protest out of fear of state repression which grew commensurately to the number of anti-government protests over this period, including the creation in 2016 of the notorious Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales de la Policía Nacional Bolivariana (FAES), a special forces branch of the police that also served as a de facto death squad during nationwide protests known as guarimbas in 2017 and 2019.[20] A retornada who spent 20 years in San Cristóbal reflects on how growing state violence dissuaded her from participating in the protests: “People were indignant, and they protested a lot. They organized many protests and there were a lot of dead youths. I had friends who participated and incited the guarimbas, but I never did.”

During this period of extreme economic scarcity and democratic backsliding, millions of Venezuelans responded to pervasive hunger and the growing futility of exercising dissent against the government whether through popular protests or electoral means - by migrating to other South American countries with more stable economies such as Peru, Chile, Brazil, and especially Colombia, where close to three million Venezuelan migrants currently reside.[21] Many based these important decisions on where to move simply on where other family members or friends had already established themselves. As one woman from Táchira who relocated to Cúcuta remembers: “I left the country because most of my family had left and there I was in the countryside. I felt vulnerable being alone with my children as there was nobody near who could help me in times of need. Additionally, the country’s situation was really complicated, everything was very difficult and the cost of living was really expensive. My family here, in contrast, are always helping with my children and it helps everybody considerably.”

Growing Xenophobia and the Rise of a Transnational Underclass

It is difficult to profile such a massive group of people and to make any notable generalizations about them apart from their shared country of origin. However, there have been discernible trends in the evolution of the Venezuelan exodus that warrant mention. Most notable is the mass exit from 2016 onwards of younger, poorer Venezuelans who lacked sufficient resources to leave the country either by plane or bus and thus resorted to walking extraordinary distances throughout South America and beyond in search of better economic opportunities. Labeled caminantes, or “walkers” for their principal mode of transport, this group largely consist of Venezuelans who only faintly remember their country before Hugo Chávez, and who came of age either during the high point of his political project in the 2000s when the country was flush with petrodollars, or in the subsequent decade of economic and social disintegration that has occurred under Nicolás Maduro’s watch.[22]

As a result of the economic crisis and the mass migration of caminantes to neighboring nations in Latin America, they have become a transnational underclass. Most reside in established working-class neighborhoods in South American cities, however, many have opted to form their own informal communities by squatting on public and private lands.[23] The overwhelming majority work in the informal sector of nearby countries, especially in street commerce, poorly paid jobs in the construction and service sectors, and a wide array of other low-skilled occupational niches, particularly in the gig economy.[24] Devoid of any other options, others can be seen at different intersections in urban centers where they offer to clean car windshields for loose change, while others engage in street performances for tips, sort through garbage for food, or collect recyclable materials for resale. The least fortunate, beg and sleep on the streets of major cities.[25]

The spectacle of migrant poverty and desperation has led to the stigmatization of Venezuelan migrants as averse to working and prone to criminality, a misconception that frequently impedes their access to housing and employment in receiving countries.[26] One man from Barquisimeto who settled in Cúcuta in 2017 recounts his experiences with discrimination living outside of his country: “When I was looking for a place to rent, I couldn’t find one as they said that because I was Venezuelan, I wasn’t going to pay my rent. Additionally, the jobs available to me offered very little pay and out of necessity I had to work for very little compensation.” Another woman from a small town in Zulia who relocated to Tibú remembers similar mistreatment when looking for work: “One day I went to look for work as a maid and a woman told me she would pay me [$1.25 USD] from six in the morning to six in the afternoon because I’m Venezuelan and that’s what she pays venecas [pejorative term for Venezuelans].”

A small minority of Venezuelan migrants have been forced to survive by working in the sex trade, while others devote themselves to assortment of other criminalized activities, a reality that has fueled the aforementioned stereotypes of the broader diaspora.[27] The surge in Venezuelan women who have been compelled by necessity, desperation, or coercion to work as prostitutes in other countries has generated a negative perception of them as being overly promiscuous. This stigma was recently typified in a derogatory reggaeton song, “La Chama,” by the Dominican musician Mr. Saik which understandably provoked outrage among the Venezuelan diaspora. [28][29] The appearance of the feared Venezuelan prison gang, Tren de Aragua, in different cities throughout Colombia, Peru, Chile, and more recently Mexico, has similarly driven negative perceptions of the Venezuelan migrant population due to the criminal organization’s well documented penchant for violence. [30][31] Despite these trends, recent scholarship has demonstrated that Venezuelan migrants are far more likely to be victims of crime and violence in receiving countries than perpetrators, a fact that has done little to correct to stem the rise in anti-Venezuelan prejudice in virtually every country that they have settled in recent years.[32]

Much of this xenophobia towards the Venezuelan diaspora appears to be driven by opportunistic political elites and tabloid media in receiving countries. For years, various Peruvian news outlets have spearheaded a distasteful campaign depicting Venezuelan migrants as criminals and prostitutes. [33] In Colombia, there are also frequent public proclamations from Colombian politicians—both on the left and the right—who seek to stigmatize and blame local problems on the Venezuelan migrant community.[34] Unfortunately these elite attitudes are embraced by average citizens in places through which Venezuelan migrants travel.  In a recent media article, a retired schoolteacher from Ciudad Juárez voiced her negative perception of Venezuelan migrants taking shelter in her community: “They already had a shelter there once, and they left it littered with garbage, clothes, and excrement. We go out early to walk and it stinks. My neighborhood is a dump […] They don’t want to work; they want everything handed out to them.”[35] Often, the consequences of these xenophobic sentiments can become violent. In recent years, protesting mobs in Chile and Brazil have confiscated migrants’ tents and other possessions and set them ablaze in public spaces with no response from local authorities, reflecting the broader lack of protection offered to Venezuelans transiting and settling in other Latin American countries.[36][37]

What dangers do Venezuelan face on their journey to the US?

Security is a fraught issue for Venezuelans since even living in their home country is perilous in and of itself. Extreme poverty, widespread hunger, pervasive crime, and political oppression threaten everyday life.[38] Unfortunately, the conditions Venezuelan migrants find on their journey through other Latin American countries are not much better. Despite these daunting challenges, widespread food insecurity has driven millions of Venezuelans to abandon their country, pushing them across international borders and through key transit points such as Cúcuta, Necoclí, Tapachula, Juárez, and Tijuana.[39]

The overland trip from Venezuela to the US-Mexico border is sinuous and treacherous. Young, healthy individuals with significant supplies of money and good fortune may make the journey in as little as a month, but most take several months or in some cases much longer if they arrive at all. Whether they depart from Venezuela, Bogotá, Lima, or beyond, Venezuelan migrants are inevitably obligated to walk long distances in punishing heat and formidable terrain, and to pay inflated prices to travel in unsafe and unreliable informal means of transport operated by “bad faith” actors looking to exploit their vulnerability for personal gain.[40] Sadly, some Venezuelan criminals also prey upon the vulnerability of their own compatriots while in transit, most notably Tren de Aragua, which serves as human traffickers throughout different migrant routes. In these places, the activities of a few gang members or independent criminals become associated with perceived increases in violence and blamed on the Venezuelan migrant population as a whole.[41]

While many Venezuelan migrants begin their journeys in various parts of South America, most migrants that are heading to the US converge upon the infamous Darien Gap due to the increased border enforcement and travel restrictions adopted by Mexico and Central American countries in recent years at the behest of the US government.[42] This notorious land bridge serves as a territorial bottleneck between South America and the Central American isthmus straddling an inhospitable patch of jungle between northwestern Colombia and southern Panama that is controlled by Colombia’s largest neo-paramilitary group, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC).[43] In recent years, Venezuelan migrants have made up the bulk of those migrants making the passage through the Darién Gap, yet they have been joined at different points by sizable waves of other migrants hailing from Haiti, Cuba, China and an assortment of other South American and African countries who have been forced by visa restrictions to plot their migrant journey to the United States through this complex topography.[44]

There exist several routes through the Darién Gap from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean Sea.[45] However, the majority of Venezuelan migrants arrive in the town of Necoclí where they need to purchase a pass in the form of a colored paper bracelet from travel agencies run by the AGC.[46] This purchase includes a boat ride across the Gulf of Urabá to the town of Acandí, and the right to traverse a well-worn route through the jungle into southeastern Panama. Those who are unable to pay the armed group’s steep fees to make this journey are often detained against their will in Necoclí (under the very real threat of violence) until they can obtain a cash transfer from a friend or relative to purchase this service.[47] Crossing the Darien Gap takes between two days to a week to cross, depending entirely on one’s age, physical condition, what and who they are traveling with, and the weather, as heavy rain obviously complicates the passage. Apart from the physical challenges posed by the trek, migrants are similarly exposed to mistreatment by bandits, manipulative guides, corrupt law enforcement officers, and in some cases other migrants, on their journey through these complicated borderlands.[48]

After negotiating the many challenges of the Darién Gap, the migrants begin the equally risky and expensive process of trying to evade local and national level law enforcement and other state authorities as they move northwards from Panama through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and finally Mexico. This stretch of the journey may take several weeks or much longer, as some migrants are compelled to spend some days in rudimentary detention facilities if they are apprehended. Many migrants leave Venezuela with little money in their pockets. One couple said they departed Maracaibo with just $200 USD, while a young man from the Catia slum of Caracas who reached El Paso said he left with no money at all other than enough to buy a bus ticket and a small amount of food. Most economically destitute migrants rely on informal networks they form with other migrants they meet along the trek, and food donations or shelter provided by charitable organizations and a smattering of good Samaritans. [49] Humanitarian assistance may consist of food, money, clothing, help with childcare, or a helping hand to get up a steep hill or under a roll of barbed wire. Along the route there are just as many people trying to exploit migrants as there are trying to help them. This may manifest in the form of elevated prices on bus tickets, lodging, and staple food items, or innumerable scams related to transportation from one place to another, lodging, or identity documents.[50]

Similar to other migrant groups, Venezuelans are routinely mistreated by manipulative and violent human traffickers, border law enforcement authorities, and local police.[51] A typical scam is for a bus driver to sell migrants tickets to the next big city in a country along the route only to then drop them off five or ten miles short of the city where other drivers, accomplices of the first driver, offer rides for a stiff fee the rest of the way in dilapidated buses and vans. Migrants are also preyed upon by gang members, drug cartel operatives, exploitative immigration officials, soldiers, and cops, especially in Guatemala and Mexico, which most migrants consider to be the most dangerous stretches to transit through on their journey northwards. While some Venezuelan migrants have recounted incidents of victimization in other Central American countries, there appears to be a systematic pattern of abuse committed by Guatemalan authorities throughout the country. In Guatemala, migrants, Venezuelan and non-Venezuelans alike, are forced at official checkpoints to disembark their transports and are subsequently robbed or extorted, and in many cases assaulted for no apparent reason.[52]

In Mexico, migrants are frequently forced to pay bribes to immigration officials, police, and soldiers throughout the country. If they do not pay the bribe, they are often held in detention centers or jails until they pay an “acceptable” amount to their captors. They are also systematically extorted for “cuotas” by human traffickers and criminal organizations sometimes connected to drug cartels or urban gangs.[53] Those who have not paid the illicit fee are kidnapped and brutalized, and in some cases raped or murdered.[54] In an attempt to escape such dangers, Venezuelan migrants resort to monotonous travel in a slow and low-key fashion from town to town, rather than taking more direct but more exposed long-haul buses. In this careful fashion, they are more likely to bypass immigration checkpoints and traps set by grifting authorities.

Once they reach the midway point of the Mexican route in Mexico City, many opt to board the legendary freight train known as “La Bestia.” The migrants hop the train at well-known stopping points such as “la Coca Cola” and “el basurero” in the north of the capital, riding it for several days, enabling them to avoid corrupt officials and avaricious human traffickers. However, many have died or been seriously injured from falling off the train or being run over by it. Others have experienced serious health consequences from brutal exposure to the sun, wind, and cold or extreme dehydration as they hang on or tie themselves to the train for days at a time.[55][56] By the time they reach the US-Mexico border, most are exhausted, hungry, and reaching the limits of their physical and mental endurance.[57]

Those Venezuelans who survive this overwhelming trek amidst the constant predation of cops and human traffickers, suddenly find themselves with few resources in locations on the front lines of the Mexican drug wars, extremely violent cities such as Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and Matamoros. Again, they face the need for shelter and sustenance while they decide upon which option they will use to attempt to gain entry into the United States. The first of these is signing up to the CBP One system, an online application that is plagued with glitches and numerous technical problems, yet nevertheless provides many migrants hope for a legal entry.[58] Another, riskier, option is to contract human traffickers to sneak across the border, or to simply climb border walls or cross desert areas clandestinely at night with the aim of turning themselves into US immigration authorities voluntarily.[59]

The latter option is particularly challenging as individuals and entire families (often including small children and sick or injured adults) must somehow negotiate the jagged razor wire, cement barriers, and steel walls of the US border and other natural obstacles such as rocky terrain and deceptively swift rivers. There, they may be physically repelled by armed National Guardsman or CBP agents, sometimes on horseback or in military-style vehicles.[60] Even if CBP agents treat the migrants respectfully (which is not always the case), the migrants are then herded into buses and taken to spartan detention facilities where they can expect inadequate food, blankets, and information about their immigration status. After spending a few days in detention, most are then released to the streets of US border towns with a future immigration court date, but no temporary work permit, minimal resources, and little to no fixed plans about where they are going to settle or provide for themselves. Many that make it to the US apply for asylum, but this leads to a court process that is neither predictable nor guaranteed.[61]

Others are not so fortunate. Numerous tragedies have occurred en route to the United States including hundreds of deaths in bus and train accidents, drownings in ill-fated river crossings, and violence at the hands of thieves and human smugglers.[62] Recently, several Venezuelan migrants (amongst other nationalities) died tragically in the fire at a Ciudad Juárez migration detention center because of the callous disregard for detainee welfare of those tasked with administering the facility.[63] For those Venezuelan migrants who successfully arrive in the United States, few do so without carrying some of the trauma of their harrowing journey northwards. Many are suffering from symptoms of PTSD, yet for others their jubilation at having arrived at their destination is accompanied by the uncertainty of what to do next and the realization of how far they are from their families and communities.[64] One Venezuelan migrant from La China, Maracaibo, recalled in an informal conversation how the trauma of leaving his family to go into exile was the biggest pain of all.

Conclusions: The Challenges and Opportunities for Venezuelans in the US

Most Latin American migrant waves to the United States, historically and presently, are united by the desire to escape intolerable living conditions and access better opportunities, and in this sense the recent influx of Venezuelans is no different. What differentiates this diaspora from previous groups appears to be the spontaneous nature of their emigration experience whereby their goal is to repatriate themselves in the United States yet without a clearly defined destination, plan, or network to help enable this difficult transition.[65] Most major migration waves from Latin America to the United States have been facilitated by pre-existing diasporas, social networks, and even sometimes government agencies, disparate forces that have enabled the relocation of hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals in select cities where these migrant groups have a meaningful presence. Previous groups such as Cubans counted on significant relocation programs designed to help make the transition easier from the 1960s onwards.[66] Similarly, the long-established Mexican, Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Central American communities in the United States have often made relocation and settlement relatively easier for their compatriots, although this by no means has always been the case.[67][68] Yet, the recent mass arrival of Venezuelans to the United States has neither government resettlement programs nor well-established diaspora networks to guide their incorporation into mainstream US society.

Of the numerous Venezuelans we interviewed in Bogotá, Tapachula, Ciudad Juárez, and El Paso, most expressed a desire to go to New York, Chicago, Miami, or Denver, even though they had few or no relatives or existing social networks in these places. At best, some migrants possessed the address of somebody they knew who now lived in these indicated destinations. Many others had no concrete destination in mind save for the United States broadly speaking. Virtually all of these migrants share a common objective which is to obtain gainful employment, make money, and provide a better life for their children and their families in both the US and in Venezuela. Beyond their universal intention to work, few had a clear idea of local conditions and employment prospects, and what their lives would ultimately be like in this country other than to state that their situation in Venezuela was unbearable and that their current prospects are substantially better here.

However, the reception of this new migrant diaspora on US soil has not come without problems. Republican governors such as Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis have taken advantage of the vulnerability of Venezuelan migrants and their apparent willingness to be relocated elsewhere, and shipped thousands of these individuals to Democratic-run areas in Texas, California, New York, and elsewhere.[69] Countless others have opted to move to metropolises in these states on their own accord, often motivated by the barrage of misinformation purveyed on social media which misleads migrants about employment prospects and the cost of living in these cities.[70] Apart from overwhelming local service provision in New York City and Chicago, the mass arrival of Venezuelans and other migrants in the past two years has spawned protests from local residents over the proposed placement of shelters in certain neighborhoods.[71] The growing pressure on elected officials in these cities is such that the Democratic mayor of New York, Eric Adams, has recently decried the growth in prostitution by blaming foreign migrants, and has even claimed that the migrant crisis is going to destroy the city [72][73]

It remains unclear what the future holds for Venezuelan migrants in the US, particularly in light of the fact that so many remain in a state of limbo where they are allowed to be in the US temporarily, yet do not have official permission to work.[74] If properly managed, the arrival of thousands of young Venezuelan migrants could help to resolve many current labor shortages in the American economy. This would allow these individuals to send substantial remittances back to Venezuela to help support their families, which could help offset any further potential outgoing emigration. However, favorable policies towards the Venezuelan diaspora might simultaneously provoke a backlash from other demographics in densely populated US cities that feel challenged by a new population of low-skilled laborers competing with them for public services and jobs in manufacturing, the service sector, and even the gig economy. Tellingly, the influx of Venezuelans has even caused divisions within the existing Venezuelan diaspora in the United States over the customs and behavior of these recent arrivals in contrast to those who have relocated to this country prior to the recent crisis.[75]

With a volatile presidential election brewing on the horizon, one in which undocumented immigration and border security will undoubtedly again be major issues, and the possible victory of a rabidly anti-immigrant Republican candidate (most likely Donald Trump), Venezuelan migrants will almost certainly find themselves an uncomfortable political scapegoat for vast swathes of the US political establishment and the population at large. To further complicate matters, US-Venezuelan political relations remain mired in complexity.[76] Although the US has selectively lifted some sanctions against Maduro’s regime, ostensibly in exchange for committing to more transparent elections in 2024 and allowing deportation flights to Venezuela, the broader relationship is extremely volatile and unlikely to dramatically improve in the short term, particularly in the face of the Maduro regime’s recent escalation of tensions with neighboring Guyana over a long-standing territorial dispute regarding ownership of the oil and gas rich Esequibo region.[77]  

As of this writing, countless Venezuelans continue to traverse the Darién Gap and make the hazardous trek northwards through Central America and Mexico towards the United States. In light of the recent policy shift, thousands of these migrants will remain stranded in Mexico and Central America where they will be forced to restart their lives from scratch.[78][79] Although, Venezuelan migration has declined significantly since the advent of Biden-ordered deportation flights to Venezuela, further government immigration restrictions and obstacles to undocumented crossing are unlikely to serve as an absolute deterrent to future migration.[80] Additionally, the Maduro regime’s embrace of authoritarian capitalism coupled with the unofficial dollarization of the Venezuelan economy has led to a relative economic stabilization that will likely improve with the easing of US sanctions, all of which may reduce the appeal of migration for younger Venezuelans.[81] However, economic desperation will continue to push many Venezuelans to leave their homeland, particularly those who do not receive foreign remittances or own their own businesses, thus depriving them access to the foreign currency required to survive in contemporary Venezuela. As long as this exclusionary economy remains then it is quite probable that Venezuelan migrants will keep attempting to come to the US regardless of the obstacles they find along the way.


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[19] Michael Penfold, “Food, technology, and authoritarianism in Venezuela’s Elections.” Wilson Center Latin American Program. April 2018: pp. 1–12,

[20] John Polga-Hecimovich. "Venezuela: The Erosion of Security Capacity" in Gabriel Marcella, Orlando J. Pérez, Brian Fonseca, Eds., Democracy and Security in Latin America. London: Routledge, 2021.

[21] “Americas: Growing exodus of Venezuelans highlights failure of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile to comply with obligations.” Amnesty International. 21 September 2023,

[22] Charles Larratt-Smith, “Cash Rules Everything: Money and Migration in the Colombian-Venezuelan Borderlands” in Tesseltje de Lange, Willem Maas, and Annette Schrauwen, Eds., Money Matters in Migration: Policy, Participation, and Citizenship. London: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[23] Noor Mahtani, “Un día más viviendo en un campamento irregular.” El País. 10 September 2021,

[24] “Migración desde Venezuela a Colombia.” Washington DC: World Bank, 2018,

[25] Marisol Chávez, “Misery of Venezuelans stranded in Mexican city of fatal migrant fire.” The Guardian. 2 April 2023,

[26] Steven Grattan, “Venezuelan migrants face rising xenophobia in Latin America.” The New Humanitarian. 13 February 2020,

[27] Karen Sánchez, “‘Es el 'desembale' más rápido’: Migrantes venezolanas se resignan a la prostitución.”Voz de America. 23 December 2022,

[28] Megan Fabbri, Magali Alba Niño, Sharvari Karandikar, Yesenia Alvarez Padilla, Valentina Coronel, Maria Alejandra Pineda, and Yaina Díaz. “An Exploration of the Social Support of Women in Sex Work in Cúcuta, Colombia.” Journal of Social Service Research. 19 October 2023,

[29] Ezra Fieser, Matthew Bristow, “Venezuelans, Go Home: Xenophobia Haunts Refugees.” Bloomberg. 5 March 2018,

[30] “Three Stages in the Construction of the Tren de Aragua’s Transnational Empire.” InSight Crime. 4 Oct 2023,

[31] Oscar Misael Hernández-Hernández, “El Tren de Aragua de Venezuela merodeaba en el campamento de migrantes de Matamoros?” 9 September 2023.

[32] Brian Knight & Ana María Tribín-Uribe, 2020. “Immigration and Violent Crime: Evidence from the Colombia-Venezuela Border.” Borradores de Economia. No. 1121, Banco de la Republica de Colombia. 23 July 2020,

[33] Leda M. Pérez and Luisa F. Freier, “Of prostitutes and thieves: the hyper-sexualisation and criminalisation of Venezuelan migrant women in Peru.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 49, no. 3, 2023: pp. 715-733,

[34] “Se vinieron todos los limosneros de Venezuela: Rodolfo Hernández.” BLU Radio. 12 May 2021,

[35] Julian Resendiz, “New migrant shelter makes neighbors uneasy.” 9 October 2023,

[36] “Chile: la marcha contra migrantes que terminó con la quema de pertenencias y carpas de extranjeros.” BBC. 26 September 2021,

[37] “Venezuela crisis: Brazil deploys troops after migrant attacks.” BBC. 19 August 2018,

[38] Ciara Nugent, “How Hunger Fuels Crime and Violence in Venezula.” Time. 23 October 2018,

[39] Charles Larratt-Smith and Daniel S. Leon, “Controlling Voice and Loyalty: The Regulation of Exit in Latin America.” International Migration. 10 April 2022: pp. 1–14,

[40] Megan Janetsky, “The walkers: Venezuelans travel hundreds of kilometres by foot.” Al Jazeera. 2 Oct 2019,

[41] Renzo Gómez Vega, “Tren de Aragua, the Venezuelan criminal gang spreading terror from Chile to Colombia.” El País. 29 June 2023,

[42] “‘This Hell Was My Only Option’ Abuses Against Migrants and Asylum Seekers Pushed to Cross the Darién Gap.” Human Rights Watch. 9 November 2023,

[43] Bram Ebus, “Trapped in the Gap: Migrants and Smugglers in the Darién.” International Crisis Group. 2023,

[44] Caitlyn Yates and Juan Pappier, “How the Treacherous Darien Gap Became a Migration Crossroads of the Americas.” Migration Policy Institute. 20 September 2023,

[45] Op. Cit., Bram Ebus,“Trapped in the Gap: Migrants and Smugglers in the Darién” at Note 43.

[46] “Bottleneck of the Americas:  Crime and Migration in the Darién Gap.” International Crisis Group, Latin America Report N°102. 3 November 2023,

[47] Astrid Suárez, “Migrantes varados en Colombia por falta de dólares para cruzar la selva del Darién.” San Diego Union-Tribune en español. 12 October 2023,

[48] Op. Cit., Human Rights Watch, “‘This Hell Was My Only Option’ Abuses Against Migrants and Asylum Seekers Pushed to Cross the Darién Gap” at Note 42.

[49] Manuel Rueda, “Hundreds of hungry Venezuelans visit Colombia food pantry daily.” Catholic News Service .18 February 2020,

[50] Lillian Perlmutter, “The Venezuelans who left too late: migrants stranded by abrupt Biden policy change.” The Guardian. 20 October 2022,

[51] “Venezuelan migrants “robbed” by Nicaraguan Immigration.” Confidencial. 15 August 2022,

[52] Lillian Perlmutter, “The Venezuelans who left too late: migrants stranded by abrupt Biden policy change” The Guardian. 20 October 2022,

[53] Edgar H. Clemente and María Verza, “Thriving network of fixers preys on migrants crossing Mexico.” Associated Press. 28 December 2022,

[54] Ted Hesson, “Nearly 3,300 migrants stranded in Mexico were kidnapped, raped or assaulted – report” Reuters. 22 June 2021,

[55] Paola Díaz, “Migrants at US-Mexico border must get past cartels before their long journey ends.” The Conversation. 18 March 2020,

[56] Oscar B. Castillo, “‘My Love, You Can Do This’: A Dangerous Journey in a Quest for a Better Life.” New York Times. 4 March 2023,

[57] “Train surfing through Mexico, dreaming of a new life in the US.” Al Jazeera. 5 October 2023,

[58] Ali Rogin and Claire Mufson, “Glitches plague CBP One app for asylum-seekers as Title 42 comes to an end.” PBS News Weekend. 22 April 2023,

[59] Op. Cit., Ali Rogan and Claire Mufson, “Train surfing through Mexico,” at Note 57.

[60] Jose Luis González, “Hundreds of migrants try to force their way into US at Mexico border.” Reuters. 13 March 2023,

[61] Gisela Salomon, “Venezuelan migrants who are applying for temporary legal status in the US say it offers some relief.” Associated Press. 13 October 2023,

[62] “Venezuelan migrant girl dies crossing river between Mexico and US.” Reuters. 19 January 2022,

[63] Howard Campbell, “Changing Faces of Immigrants Crossing through Ciudad Juárez and into the United States: Reflections on Migrants, Culture and Crime.” Small Wars Journal. 24 March 2023,

[64] Saskia R. Vos, Christopher Salas-Wright, Gustavo Espinosa, Carolina Scaramutti, Tao Kyo Lee, Maria Duque, and Seth J. Schwartz,  “Perceived discrimination and posttraumatic stress disorder among Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and the United States: The moderating effect of gender”. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Vol. 15, no 7. 2023: pp. 1076–1084,

[65] Marisa Peñaloza, Joel Rose, “The U.S. creates a legal pathway for Venezuelan migrants, but many won't qualify.” NPR. 19 October 2022,

[66] Felix Masud-Piloto, From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959-1995. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996.

[67] Alejandro Portes and Ramón Grosfoguel, “Caribbean Diasporas: Migration and Ethnic Communities.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 533, no. 1: pp. 48-69,

[68] Douglas S. Massey, “The Settlement Process Among Mexican Migrants to the United States.” American Sociological Review. Vol. 51, no. 5. 1986: pp. 670–84,

[69] James Barragán, “Long the subject of rhetoric, migrants have now become props in political theater.” The Texas Tribune. 22 September 2022,

[70] Isaac Chotiner, “Why So Many Migrants Are Coming to New York Untangling the politics, policies, and messaging behind the current crisis.” The New Yorker. 15 September 2023,

[71] Mitch Smith, “In Chicago, a Neighborhood of Immigrants Is Conflicted About More Arrivals.” New York Times. 31 October 2023,

[72] Jeff Coltin, “Adams: Cost of migrants ‘will destroy New York City.’” Politico. 7 September 2023,

[73] Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón, “Venezuelan sex workers propel a new red light district in New York.” VOZ Media. 1 November 2023,

[74] Joel Rose , Marisa Peñaloza, “The U.S. admitted thousands of Venezuelan migrants. Many are now stuck in legal limbo.” NPR. 23 October 2022,

[75] Tony Frangie Mawad. “A Flood of Venezuelan Migrants Is Angering Other Venezuelans.” Politico. 29 November 2022,

[76] Genevieve Glatsky, Isayen Herrera, and Julie Turkewitz, “A Thaw Between U.S. and Venezuela Ahead of a Key Vote.” New York Times.20 October 2023,

[77] Patricia Laya, Fabiola Zerpa, and Nicolle Yapur, “Maduro Whips Up Guyana Tension, Opposition Arrests to Stay in Charge in Venezuela.” Bloomberg. 9 December 2023,

[78] Op. Cit., Lillian Perlmutter, “The Venezuelans who left too late” at Note 52.

[79] Michael McDonald, “The American Dream Is Over for Venezuelans Stranded in Costa Rica.” Bloomberg. 27 October 2022,

[80] Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Venezuelan arrivals along U.S. southern border drop after Biden starts deportations.” CBS News. 14 November 2023,

[81] Tony Frangie Mawad, “Venezuela’s Fickle Economic Recovery Is Falling Apart.” Americas Quarterly. 26 June 2023,


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Charles Larratt-Smith is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at El Paso. He has a BA in Puerto Rican and Latino Studies from Brooklyn College (CUNY), a MA in International Relations from the City College of New York (CUNY), and a PhD from the University of Toronto in Political Science. Previously, he was a visiting professor at the Universidad de Los Andes (ULA) in Mérida, Venezuela, a visiting researcher at the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP) in Bogotá, Colombia, and a research professor at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Querétaro, México. His research focuses on human security and transnational migration with a regional focus on Latin America. 



Dr. Howard Campbell is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He is the author or editor of seven academic volumes including a 2021 book from University of Texas Press called Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence and Abuse. Dr. Campbell received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1990. He has been a professor at UTEP since 1991, and chairman of the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at UTEP since 2014. He is a specialist in Latin American Studies with a primary focus on Mexico.