Economist and retired director of the Institute of International Relations, University of the West Indies (UWI) Dr Anthony Gonzales believes that Venezuelan migrants have made and can continue to make an economic contribution to T&T. However he is not sure whether Venezuelan migrants would be willing to stay in T&T and work legally.
“The problem is that many if not most Venezuelan migrants prefer to remain undocumented as they enjoy the benefits of not paying tax and National Insurance (NIS). Some of them even believe it is easier to get work as an undocumented person, especially in the informal sector. Once the environment is very tolerant of migrants and law enforcement is not overpowering, many migrants prefer to live in anonymity, without legal status, especially if they see themselves as temporary and can go back and forth to their homeland,” he told the Business Guardian.
Last week in a media statement, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar demanded that Government regularise all Venezuelans with migrant cards who do not have criminal records and allow them to hold driving permits and begin paying all applicable taxes, such as contributing to the National Insurance system.
Persad-Bissessar said Venezuelan migrants who are law-abiding and contributing to T&T’s economy should be fully integrated into society.
“I am extremely disappointed that the Government has not yet seen it fit to honour our international obligations under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Instead, the Government implemented a haphazard policy in 2020 and they recklessly failed to follow up on supporting policies and programmes,” she said.
The Opposition Leader added: “Migrants cannot obtain driver’s licences and cannot be registered for National Insurance. They cannot tell employers that it’s okay to hire them because their migrant permits have expired and their academic qualifications are not recognised. They are unbanked and vulnerable to exploitation.”
In 2019, the Government offered over 16,500 the right to live and work in T&T temporarily.
In January of this year, the Minister of National Security Fitzgerald Hinds announced a fourth extension of work permits for them since the initial registration in 2019.
Gonzales also said Colombia offers a model for T&T as Colombia started with a two-year registered status and later upgraded that to ten years with a pathway to citizenship.
“The Opposition Leader is talking about those who are already registered and whose status after three years should be upgraded to permanent resident or citizenship. I agree with this, as we should seek to offer them, as the Colombians have done, a pathway to citizenship once they have stayed here for a certain time legally. I also agree with the treatment of the education of the children.”
Migrants’ economic contribution
Attorney-at-law Darrell Allahar, who has represented Venezuelan migrants in T&T, told the Business Guardian that once these migrants are given more rights to open bank accounts and pay taxes, they will make a healthy contribution to T&T’s economy and society as a whole.
He noted that four years after they were first registered to work in T&T in 2019, their legal status is still not assured.
“But now after four years, many have settled and some have married T&T citizens. Many have had children in T&T and have started small businesses and have made themselves useful, honest members of society. There has been no utterance by the government that all of these people are to be sent back. So, if they are here because it is somewhat inconvenient and costly to send them back, shouldn’t we consider regularising their status to integrate them fully into the economy to which they now contribute?”
He spoke about Venezuelan migrants’ contribution to the SME sector.
“Their labour capital adds to the production of goods and services. They are entitled to primary healthcare. They expect our protective services, fire services and ambulance services to assist. They pay VAT as indirect taxpayers whenever they purchase food, medicine and clothing. They pay rent to landlords. Many have built their own small businesses—restaurants, food preparation, cake decoration, party decoration, sewing and even cheese and sausage making. Unfortunately, most banks will not allow them to open accounts. They cannot get a driver’s permit or even own vehicles.”
Allahar also said Venezuelan migrants with permanent legal status in T&T will also benefit the state economically.
“From an economic point of view, it makes sense to bring the Venezuelan migrant community fully into the formal economic system. It would benefit the State if they were liable to pay income tax - since many of them are otherwise qualified and hold degrees and certificates, but cannot get jobs, other than basic positions because of their status. Their participation in the formal job market will assist in contributions to the National Insurance Fund.”
He also suggested the legal path the Government can take.
“The law is available to be used. The Immigration Act allows the Minister to grant what is called a Minister’s Permit—which allows one to live and work here for a certain period. There is also the route of applications for residency status, which I think they should be allowed to pursue once they are permitted to stay. Perhaps we can contrast what we have done historically to integrate the many thousands of migrants who have come from Grenada, St Vincent, Barbados, and the other Caribbean Islands over the years. They were never kept in suspense, and were incorporated as valuable members of our society.”
He also made the argument that it is possible Venezuelan migrants can even vote here.
“Our electoral laws allow for residents and non-Commonwealth citizens residing in electoral districts to be registered as electors and to receive identification cards as voters in Local Government Elections. It is certainly something to be considered, since the interests of every group, even migrants, in my view, should be represented and they should have a political voice if indeed they have a vote.”
Finally, he said, apart from economics and the law, T&T has been built on a society where people have worked and built dreams and Venezuelans in T&T fall in the same category.
“The law and economics aside, there is another reason for integrating Venezuelan migrants, that is just as important. It is common humanity and decency. It is simply cruel to keep anyone, far less thousands in a state of legal and economic uncertainty, while they build lives, families and business in this country. T&T’s society has been built on the labour of those who came with nothing, and who have by hard work and sacrifice, created a nation of many peoples. We are a land of new starts.”