What Colombia can teach Chicago about managing a migrant wave

Chip Mitchell, WBEZ, With photography by Anthony Vazquez, Chicago Sun-Times

The small, relatively poor South American country has received four times more Venezuelans than the United States but offers a path to integration. WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times went to see it.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center

Para leer este artículo en español, haga clic AQUÍ.

Over the past two years, the city of Chicago has struggled to care for destitute migrants arriving from the southern border. The majority, around 30,000, are from Venezuela, a South American country whose economy has collapsed.

But the number of Venezuelans in Chicago hardly compares to how many have migrated over the past decade to neighboring Colombia. Bogotá alone, the capital, has received more than 600,000.

This spring, I flew to Colombia to see how that smaller and less prosperous country has handled its Venezuelan influx. In Bogotá and Cúcuta, the largest Colombian city along the Venezuelan border, I interviewed more than 30 migrants and public officials, humanitarian leaders and scholars, most of them in Spanish. I also asked dozens of regular Colombians for their views on the migrant tide.

I found that Colombia initially rolled out the welcome mat and, by many measures, absorbed this population with little harm and many benefits. Nearly 1.9 million Venezuelans gained paths to formal employment as well as Colombia’s education and health care systems.

More recently, however, Colombia’s migrant integration has begun to falter due to the indifference of a new president, waning interest among international donors and a wave of xenophobia rippling through the public.

This reality has kept Venezuelan migrants such as 17-year-old Desiré Borges at the margins of Colombian society. Desiré, pictured above with her 1-year-old daughter, told me about anti-Venezuelan stereotypes that have led to shame and despair.

Colombia — a decade into a muddled but essentially humane response to a migrant crisis — holds many lessons for Chicago.

Asneidis Vega in April stands in her kitchen in Ciudad Bolívar, a low-income section of southern Bogotá that sprawls into mountains. Hyperinflation in Venezuela pushed Vega and her family to migrate to Colombia.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
What drove migrants from Venezuela

Until 2017, Asneidis Vega and her husband were raising their three children in Los Puertos de Altagracia, a Venezuelan town near the northern city of Maracaibo. Both had office jobs for the municipality and earned two or three times the minimum wage. Their house had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. They had a garage, car and motorcycle.

But Vega, who is 39, said hyperinflation made it increasingly hard to feed and clothe the kids: “We were all getting really skinny.”

So her husband left for Colombia to find work for currency that held its value. Vega tried to stick it out with the kids, but it just got harder. She said the last straw was when their 12-year-old’s school shoes wore out.

“The money I had was for us to eat,” Vega told me. “I didn’t have money to buy him shoes.”

So, she sold their car to buy clothes for the kids. And she scraped up money for bus tickets to Colombia.

Vega and I spoke at her kitchen table under a corrugated asbestos roof. The family now lives in Ciudad Bolívar, a section of Bogotá that sprawls into mountains. The newer settlements, known as “invasions,” have unpaved roads. Her family and many others have pirated electricity and they lack running water.

The only jobs she and her husband have found are unskilled and poorly paid. Some have required hourslong bus commutes. The kids often end up home alone. The family’s standard of living is nothing like it was in Venezuela.

But they’re not starving. And the kids have shoes.

Asneidis Vega’s daughter looks up at her mom as Asneidis Vega recounts her decision to move to Colombia at their home in a migrant settlement of Ciudad Bolívar, a vast low-income area built atop steep hills in southern Bogotá, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Ashley Cárdenas, 15, listens to her mother, Asneidis Vega, recount the family’s decision to leave a once-comfortable life in Venezuela and move to Colombia. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Vega’s family was part of an exodus from Venezuela that swelled after an 18-month drop in oil prices that began in 2014. In Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, the economy hinges on that industry’s boom-and-bust cycles.

The drop in oil prices meant lower demand for the nation’s currency, which drove up inflation. To fund social programs without much oil revenue, President Nicolás Maduro printed more money, which pushed inflation even higher. By 2015, it was nearly 122%, according to the International Monetary Fund.

By then, there were medicine and food shortages. In 2018, inflation skyrocketed to 65,000%, the IMF reports. The currency, the bolívar, had become virtually worthless.

Those years began “a new phase in Venezuela migration,” said Sergio Guzmán, a Colombia political risk consultant in Bogotá. “It was the poor and the destitute classes of Venezuela coming to our country, both as a transit point to another place where they had family or friends who had migrated — Peru, Ecuador, Chile — or up to the United States.”

But almost half those migrants, Guzmán added, went no farther than Colombia. Since 2014, about 3 million Venezuelans have ended up there — roughly four times the number that have come to the United States.

The only jobs Asneidis Vega and her husband have found in Colombia are poorly paid but her kids are no longer hungry, as they were before they fled the economic collapse in Venezuela. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Danny Díaz, a chef from Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, now lives near Asneidis Vega and her family in Ciudad Bolívar. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Díaz heads into his modest home atop steep hills in southern Bogotá. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Díaz has long battled a drug addiction. But he says he has not seen a doctor since arriving from Venezuela in 2019 without any ID papers. Colombia’s migrant integration has not reached him.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Díaz finds comfort with his cats. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Critics of Maduro say the economic collapse driving the migration stemmed not just from the plunge in oil prices but also from economic mismanagement and government corruption.

Maduro and his supporters counter that “economic war on Venezuela” was waged by his political opponents, the country’s business elite and foreign powers.

The “war” included sanctions imposed by the United States in 2015 against individuals tied to Maduro. The Obama administration had accused the government of “serious human rights abuses” and “antidemocratic actions.”

Starting in 2017, the Trump administration broadened sanctions to target Venezuelan finances and the state-owned oil company — the economy’s engine.

During my weeks in Bogotá, I interviewed several experts who stressed that the economy had been melting down for years before those broad Trump sanctions. The experts included veteran Venezuelan human rights scholar Ligia Bolívar.

Still, Bolívar told me the blockade exacerbated “chaos” and expanded the black market, including sales of drugs and minerals: “Whenever you have an illegal economy, you also have armed groups. You have a country that’s impossible to govern, impossible to handle.”

Lenis Suárez walks her children Candy and Hidalgo home from school near La Parada, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Thursday, April 11, 2024.
Lenis Suárez walks her children, Candy and Hidalgo, home from school in April near La Parada, a town on Colombia’s Venezuelan border. Suárez says she entered Colombia on a trocha, an illegal foot trail. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
How the migrants cross into Colombia

From their home in Puerto Cabello, a Caribbean port city in Venezuela, Lenis Suárez and her two young kids took a bus in 2018 to a border town across from Cúcuta, a sweltering Colombian city. They did not have passports.

So they joined dozens of other migrants one morning before dawn.

Instead of entering Colombia through a checkpoint on a bridge, they hiked with a guide through willows and alder trees on a rocky path along the Táchira, a knee-deep river whose branches crisscross the border like strands of a tattered braid.

It was dark. It was raining. And, suddenly, there was gunfire.

“Everyone on the path started running,” Suárez, 24, told me. “I tried to keep up.”

She ran with her 13-month-old but lost her grip. The baby fell to the ground and seemed to stop breathing.

“I thought he was going to die,” Suárez said.

No one stopped to help. They just kept running. “I felt paralyzed,” she said.

Then, a stranger appeared.

The woman kneeled over the babycleared his mouth, and started blowing into his mouth and nose. She pumped his small chest with her fingers.

The baby responded. The stranger lifted him to Suárez and ran ahead.

“I never saw her again,” she said.

To this day, Suárez wonders whether the woman was an angel.

Lenis Suárez and her children survived a harrowing journey across the border from Venezuela to start a new life in Colombia. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Suárez and her family live in a town near where they crossed the border from Venezuela in 2018.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Suárez picks up her children, Candy and Hidalgo, from school in La Parada, a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Suárez feared she would lose her youngest child on her journey from Venezuela to Colombia but a stranger came to his rescue, allowing them to start a new life. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The illegal foot trail that Suárez traversed six years ago is one of dozens that cross Colombia’s 1,378-mile border with Venezuela. They’re known as trochas.

One hot day on a trocha near Cúcuta, weather-worn men with knapsacks strode past me. I also encountered a Colombian army patrol. The commander warned me not to peep over a ridge to see the Venezuelan side.

You wouldn’t want to be visible, he said.

Criminal groups have long vied for control of the trochas. The paths are vital for smuggling drugs, precious minerals, gasoline and, since Venezuela’s economic collapse, migrants themselves.

A foot trail near the Colombian city of Cúcuta enables people to cross the country’s border with Venezuela illegally. Scores of these trails cross that 1,378-mile frontier. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Near Cúcuta, several criminal groups operate on both sides and take advantage of migrants. Many Venezuelans arrive without any money, so they have to make a deal with a group that controls a trocha, Dutch researcher Bram Ebus said. Ebus works in Colombia for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention think tank based in Brussels.

“If you’re a woman, they’ll force you to sell your body,” Ebus said. “If you’re a man, they start working with you to become active in one of the smaller criminal groups, collecting extortion payments or carrying illegal goods across the border.”

The goods include small amounts of cocaine and gold that are later gathered.

Members of Tren de Aragua, a notorious Venezuelan gang that operates in the Cúcuta area, have trailed migrations across Latin America. Alleged members have been arrested as far away as suburban Chicago, although ties to the group’s leaders in Venezuela appear flimsy.

The border appears to drive crime in nearby areas, including Cúcuta, where the population in the metropolitan area has ballooned to more than 1 million. Cúcuta’s homicide rate last year, nearly 37 murders per 100,000 residents, was down a bit from a decade earlier but remained about 50% higher than both Colombia’s as a whole and Chicago’s.

Cúcuta municipal council president Edison Contreras (left), photographed in City Hall this April, has proposed building a wall along Colombia’s Venezuela border. But former mayor Jairo Yáñez says any money for a border wall would be better spent on transit, internet access and water treatment plants.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Cúcuta municipal council president Edison Contreras is pushing for a border wall. He told me he borrowed the idea from former President Donald Trump.

“I know that Cúcuta does not have the economic capacity to invest in a wall but we can seek international cooperation,” Contreras said as he showed me the council’s meeting chamber.

But business leader and former Cúcuta Mayor Jairo Yáñez says any money for a border wall would be better spent on transit, internet access and water treatment plants.

Yáñez, whose mayoral tenure ended in December due to a one-term limit, won a U.S.-backed national award that month for migration policies.

He said real security along the border would require massive economic investment “to recover the dignity of people who unfortunately, due to hunger, have had to turn to crime.”

The perils of crossing into Colombia from Venezuela
Meet a young mother who survived a harrowing journey across the border with her two young children to start a new life.


At her home near Colombia’s Venezuelan border this April, Desiré Borges, 17, sits with her daughter. She says xenophobic bullying by teachers led her to drop out of high school.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
The xenophobia Venezuelan migrants face

Desiré Borges was 9 years old when her family arrived from Maracay, a city in central Venezuela. Her parents couldn’t find jobs, so they became recyclers. They pull a big cart through border towns near Cúcuta and pick through garbage to find bottles, cans and egg cartons.

Desiré saw the work as honorable. But her classmates saw a lot of Venezuelans doing it and shamed her for it. They accused her family of stealing and eating from garbage.

She said she faced another form of xenophobia when she was 15. Desiré and her mother told me about it one evening in their home, built along a dirt road from construction remnants.

Desiré’s mom learned she was having sex with her boyfriend. So she took Desiré to a clinic for a contraceptive implant, a small rod in the upper arm

But, when Desiré went to school with a bandage over the rod, she was harassed.

“The teachers started bullying me, saying my mom got me the implant so I could go to bed with lots of men,” Desiré said.

Some teachers told her this was typical of Venezuelans, she said.

Desiré Borges covers her eyes as she recounts how she felt when students were bullying her at her home outside of Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024.
Desiré Borges begins to cry as she recounts the bullying she suffered in high school. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It turns out Desiré was already pregnant before she got the implant. Pregnancies at that age are not uncommon in either Colombia or Venezuela.

In fact, both countries have some of the Western Hemisphere’s highest teen birth rates. Researchers have tied that to poverty and traditional gender roles.

But Desiré still faced harassment at school.

“I stayed in the bathroom, crying because I didn’t want to go to school anymore,” she said.

Desiré dropped out and, last year, had her baby.

Now she puts her daughter in a stroller every morning and helps her parents on their recycling rounds.

Desiré, now 17, would like to return to school to get ahead for her baby and parents. But when she spoke of the barriers to going back, tears streamed down her face.

Desiré Borges and her family sit for a phot at their home in an unsanctioned neighborhood outside Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Desiré Borges’ family stand outside their home in an unsacntioned neighborhood outside of Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Desiré Borges holds her daughter as she receives a bag at their home in an unsanctioned neighborhood outside Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Two children walk down the hill near an unsanctioned neighborhood outside Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Desiré Borges holds her daughter in between her legs at their home outside of Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
A $100 Venezuelan Bolívar in the sink of Desiré Borges family home that they consider worthless at their home in the Los Patios, Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Saturday, April 13, 2024. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Colombia and Venezuela share a language, a religion and that long, snaking border. Many Colombians have relatives who moved to Venezuela during one of its oil booms or as refugees during Colombia’s long civil war. In Venezuela, those migrants were often branded drug dealers, thieves and prostitutes.

Now that Venezuelans have poured into Colombia, the tables are turned.

During my time there, I heard that the Venezuelans have crowded out Colombian couriers and barbers, that they shouldn’t be allowed to enroll their kids in school without papers, that they’re using up medical resources, that they’re pickpockets and extortionists.

I heard such things not only from Colombians competing with the migrants for low-skilled work — or only from far-right nationalists. I heard it from highly educated professionals who consider themselves progressive.

Cucuta, Norte de Santander, Colombia, Friday, April 12, 2024.
Along Colombia’s Venezuelan border, the Cúcuta metropolitan area has ballooned to more than 1 million people.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Pilar Páez, a nursing supervisor who helps run a reproductive health unit at a public hospital in Bogotá, told me young Venezuelan women disregard her advice to use contraceptives.

She said they want to get pregnant to acquire Colombian nationality “because it’s easier for them and, of course, it also has economic benefits.”

It reminded me of the old canard about U.S. immigrants having so-called anchor babies.

“Our culture is very different from that of Venezuela,” Páez added. “The promiscuity in Venezuela is striking.”

Such bigotry has emerged in every South American country where Venezuelans have migrated, Human Rights Watch researcher Martina Rapido Ragozzino told me in Bogotá.

“There’s this strong gender component in discrimination toward Venezuelans,” Rapido said.

The women are stigmatized as “keen to have sex for specific benefits or something in exchange,” Rapido said, while the men are disparaged as thieves.

Walking to the United States

MULTIMEDIA: Photographer Anthony Vazquez and reporter Chip Mitchell encountered 12 caminantes, or walkers, near the beginning of a journey from their Venezuelan hometown to an impossibly faraway destination.

Click HERE.

These views show up as far away as Chicago. They can get in the way of finding apartments and jobs, migrants and advocates say.

And xenophobia sometimes seeps into resentment among Chicagoans who believe they should be getting resources going to migrants.

“I don’t see the Black folks getting that kind of help,” Ald. Emma Mitts, who represents a West Side ward, said during a City Council debate in April over an additional $70 million in funding for migrants.

“English is supposed to be the American language,” Mitts added. “But, no, not now. Because you [won’t] get a job if you don’t speak bilingual. You’re not qualified.”

In a new Colombia ministry set up by President Gustavo Petro, economist Liliana Morales Hurtado directs a Bogotá office in charge of combating xenophobia nationwide.

“Exclusion and xenophobia will never generate anything more than cycles of violence and poverty,” Morales told me.

Morales said her office is planning campaigns against xenophobia but, with only 10 employees in a country of 52 million people, those efforts will require international funding.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro delivers a speech during the International Workers' Day march in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, May 1, 2024.
President Gustavo Petro inherited Colombia’s migrant integration effort when he took office in 2022 but he has not embraced it. (Photo: Fernando Vergara/AP)

Petro himself has rarely denounced xenophobia, leaving the fight against it largely to nongovernmental groups.

Laura Jiménez Cortés heads one in Bogotá called the Barometer. The group uses software to spot xenophobia in news reports and on social media. A finding that has surprised her is how often people speak up for migrants.

“When there’s something very xenophobic, there’s a lot of people that respond against the message,” Jiménez said.

But sparring online accomplishes only so much. Jiménez said effective efforts in the physical world have included pro-migrant street theater, training for journalists, and protests denouncing migrant-bashing politicians.

And Jiménez had a message for Chicago. She said foes of xenophobia here could draw from the fact that so many of the city’s residents are descendants of immigrants who once faced xenophobia themselves.

“Migrants need to know they have people backing them — that there are people who are denouncing discrimination,” Jiménez said.

Already on the margins and ostracized
Seventeen-year-old Desiré Borges talks about the painful experience of bullying at her school in Colombia.


Zoheny Lugo and her kids this April in their kitchen in Palmitas, a low-income neighborhood of Bogotá, the Colombian capital. Lugo and her family are rebuilding the middle-class life they had to leave behind in Venezuela.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Integration in the face of marginalization

In Valencia, a big city in central Venezuela, Zoheny Lugo had a good job as an industrial safety supervisor for a freight company. It was 2018, more than three years into Venezuela’s economic meltdown.

But her husband couldn’t find work in his field, international business. So they moved with their 3-year-old to Bogotá.

Lacking permission to work, they put their careers on hold to find off-the-books jobs. Lugo ended up in a furniture factory. Her husband washed motorcycles.

Their first apartment was rundown and small. The neighborhood had “a lot of drug use and thefts, and there were no parks,” she told me.

In 2020, Lugo obtained a Colombian permit for Venezuelan migrants. It allowed her into government-subsidized health care and formal employment — if she could find it.

She eventually was hired by an international nonprofit to help other Venezuelan migrants with parenting and managing stress.

Lugo’s husband got one of the permits too and landed a job driving a city bus.

Lugo, who is 32, said they’re now saving up for a bigger apartment in a safer neighborhood.

Zoheny Lugo, at her family’s Bogotá apartment, left a career job at a freight company during Venezuela’s economic meltdown to move to Colombia. She and her husband initially lacked permission to work so they took off-the-books jobs. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Eventually, Lugo got a permit for Venezuelan migrants and now works helping other migrants.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Lugo and her family want to move from their small place in Palmitas, a low-income neighborhood in southwestern Bogotá. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Lugo and her husband are saving up for an apartment in a safer neighborhood for their son and daughter. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

This is how Colombia’s Temporary Protection Permit is supposed to work. About two-thirds of the 2.9 million Venezuelan migrants in the country have received it, laying paths to formal jobs, health care, pensions, education and the financial system.

An IMF study says integrating Venezuelan migrants into the formal labor market could expand Colombia’s GDP almost 4% by 2030.

Central Bank of Bogotá economist Andrea Otero told me the Venezuelan influx hasn’t lowered wages or the number of jobs for Colombians in the formal market.

In the informal labor market, however, Venezuelans have been a slight drag on wages and workforce participation, Otero said. Informal work ranges from street vending and house cleaning to agricultural piece work.

But even migrants with informal jobs pay sales taxes that fund social programs for low-income Colombians, Otero added.

They’ve also helped turn around parts of the economy, including Colombia’s world-famous coffee industry. Venezuelans now pick most of the beans.

And, while migrants may be exerting downward pressure on wages for domestic work, more Colombian families can now afford the help. This frees up some high-skilled Colombians, especially women, to work outside the home, Otero said.

In Chicago, advocates say the new arrivals could help revitalize depopulated neighborhoods and schools. Migrant students have already helped reverse the school system’s enrollment decline. The migrants, if allowed, could also mitigate local labor shortages in retail, restaurants and manufacturing.

As in other parts of the world, however, Chicago’s integration has triggered the same zero-sum rationale against helping migrants. A number of City Council members have complained that migrants are taking jobs and government resources their constituents deserve.

“I’m conflicted,” Ald. Jeanette Taylor, who represents a mostly low-income South Side ward, said during the April council debate over the migrant funds. “I know it’s right to help other people. But when the hell are y’all gonna help us?”

What migrants in Chicago say they need most is permission to work.

President Joe Biden last fall expanded Temporary Protected Status eligibility to include almost half a million recent Venezuelan arrivals. The status would allow them to apply for work authorization. But migrants who arrived after July 2023 remain ineligible. And the status, set to expire in April 2025, provides no path to citizenship.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro shows off a watch given to him by the late soccer legend Diego Maradona, during the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America or ALBA summit, at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, April 24, 2024.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shows off a watch given to him by the late soccer star Diego Maradona during a Latin American political summit April 24 in Caracas. Since Maduro took office in 2013, the country’s economy has collapsed and about 7.7 million residents have emigrated, many to Colombia. (Photo: Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Colombia’s permit lasts 10 years and can lead to citizenship — in a country where the economy is less than 4% the size of the United States’.

Still, as of this winter, the Colombia integration program had not reached hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants living there. Adults who have arrived since May 2023 are ineligible, even if they entered with a valid passport.

Researcher María Clara Robayo of Bogotá’s Rosario University said even some Venezuelans who received the Colombian card remain without basics such as the promised health care, a driver’s license or a bank account.

The loss of momentum in the migrant integration is due partly to President Petro. He inherited the effort when he took office in 2022. Instead of pushing it, he has focused on building relations with Maduro, the Venezuelan president.

Another factor is a reduction in aid from abroad, especially the United States. Many donors to Colombia’s migrant integration have been shifting funds to places like Ukraine, Gaza and South Sudan. Some refugee groups in Colombia told me their international aid has shrunk over the past year.

Biden’s foreign aid proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would provide Colombia its smallest annual U.S. package since 2020.

Rapido, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said reducing funds could backfire.

“What the U.S. should do is work with the countries that are receiving these migrants to integrate them more strongly,” Rapido said, “so Venezuelans will have a place where they can redo their lives and they are not forced to keep migrating north to the U.S.”

David Delgado grabs a bag from the back of his recycling cart in the Patio Bonito neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
After leaving Venezuela for Bogotá, David Delgado had to start over. He works collecting recyclable materials from parts of southwestern Bogotá within reach of his Patio Bonito neighborhood. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A redo was what David Delgadoneeded in 2019. The Venezuelan government had expropriated the Irish-owned paper mill where he worked. After the mill — located in San Felipe, a central Venezuelan city — shut down, he couldn’t feed his family.

“When I boarded the bus for Colombia, I didn’t even know where Colombia was,” Delgado said.

He crossed the border without a passport, so he didn’t qualify for an early version of the permit enabling Venezuelan migrants to work. He had a hard time finding a job.

“I landed in recycling because there wasn’t anything else to do,” he told me while standing in the street below his family’s cramped apartment in southwestern Bogotá.

Every morning, Delgado pulls a cart through neighborhoods to collect glass and aluminum, along with anything else he can sell at the junkyard.

On a good day, he makes $8. He has five mouths to feed. The money doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Delgado, 54, now qualifies for legalized status. But getting the card would require a bus trip across town — another barrier in Colombia’s migrant integration. He would have to give up the income from an entire day of recycling.

Eight dollars in exchange for the chance at a better future? This is not a sacrifice Delgado feels he can make today.

Willing to work, in Colombia to stay
How the Lugo family, who moved to Bogotá in 2018, successfully entered the mainstream economy.


As a recycler, David Delgado pulls this cart every day to collect aluminum cans, glass jars and egg cartons from across southwestern Bogotá.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

How to help Venezuelan migrants in Colombia
Many nonprofit groups are bringing humanitarian and other aid to impoverished Venezuelan migrants starting over in a new country.


Cover Photo: Desiré Borges, 17, holds her daughter in April outside their home in Los Patios, a town near Colombia’s Venezuelan border. Though 1.9 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia have gained paths to formal employment and public services, the integration has largely left out Desiré and her family. Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Reporter: Chip Mitchell of WBEZ has focused on migration and Latin America for much of his career. That includes reporting for U.S. news outlets from seven Latin American countries, including Colombia, where he worked for three years. He produced this project with support from the Pulitzer Center, as a Richard C. Longworth Media Fellow.

Photographer: Anthony Vazquez of the Chicago Sun-Times works primarily on the city’s South and West sides. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he worked for three years in Mexico City as a freelance photographer, mostly for the Associated Press.

Collaborators: Iñigo Alexander López in Bogotá and Jonathan Maldonado in Cúcuta.

Democracy Solutions Project: This story is part of a collaboration of WBEZ, the Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government with funding from the Pulitzer Center. We’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the November elections.

Publisher’s Notes: What Colombia can teach Chicago about managing a migrant wave was first published by WBEZ, and republished with permission.

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