There is an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. As the Venezuelan government clings to power and denies that its people are sick, starving, and saddled with an increasingly worthless currency, millions of people are fleeing the failing state. In a country with a population of 34 million, more than 2 million have already left since 2014. Border towns around Venezuela, and border towns elsewhere in Latin America, are straining under this massive refugee load.

In one of these border towns, a McCourt student and professor have intervened. Andrea Vargas (MPP ‘19) and McCourt adjunct professor Joseph Firchein launched an impact investing project in Ipiales, Colombia designed to connect refugees with the legal help they need to speed up their entry into Vargas’s native Ecuador with no out-of-pocket fees.

The project received a $48,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps to pay for the salary, transportation, and office costs for a lawyer in Ipiales. Vargas also built a network of 113 organizations, from law firms to private CEOs to NGOs, based in major Ecuadorian cities but were unable to travel to the border.

The Initiative "Venezuelan: Mi amigo"
The process developed by the project team is as follows:

  • The lawyer interviews Venezuelan refugees in Ipialies, Colombia, and helps them complete their documentation.
  • Once a file is completed and scanned, it’s distributed to law firms in the network.
  • The law firms will initiate the legal process for asylum, as well as sharing the candidate with private firms and NGOs in the network.
  • Once an NGO or private firm confirms a vacancy, the law firm processing the claim reaches out directly to high-ranking officials in the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to fast-track refugee applications.
  • Once the refugees have immigrated, private companies and NGOs in the network provide workshops to ensure that they settle in.
  • Down the road, each immigrant and their family are required to keep up with counseling, which they pay with their newfound salary. Attendance is recorded to ensure that people helped by the program are thriving in their new home.

Measuring Their Success
With this process, the McCourt team is able to make sure all immigrants have appropriate paperwork, remove private firms and NGOs from the legal process, and radically scale back the time Venezuelan refugees spend languishing on the border. The average refugee helped by this program has been waiting for a month and a half, but gets their application turned around in 1-2 days with free legal help.

As of December 2018, the initiative has successfully secured 1,211 Ecuadorian working visas (meaning 1,211 Venezuelans have gotten jobs with a contract duration of at least 2 years). 573 of these were given to heads of families, who brought their family with them.