MAICAO, Colombia—“Empuja, vamos, empuja sostenido. Push, come on, keep pushing.”
The doctor chanted it like a mantra at Venezuelan migrant, Yulianis Rodriguez, from a delivery room in the northern Colombia-Venezuela border city of Maicao.
Rodriguez, 26, was alone in the hospital in May, with no one’s hand to squeeze and no epidural, nothing for the pain other than a bright yellow rag in her mouth to stop her from biting down on her tongue.
She crossed into Colombia months earlier through “trocha,” illegal dirt pathways run by criminal groups, with little more than her Venezuelan ID to her name. After living through Venezuela’s collapsing economy and food and medicine crises, the pregnant Venezuelan hoped she’d be able to get the medical care for her baby that she’d never be able to get in her own country.
“I came to Maicao to be able to have my baby,” she said in Spanish. “To be able to work, to be able to help myself. I’m here because of this crisis.”
But due to Colombia’s citizenship laws her baby became one 24,000 children in the South American country who were born “apátrida” — stateless, without a country to call home. And while Colombia is putting in place new measures to protect babies like Rodriguez’s, human rights activists worry that those measures are only a temporary solution for a bigger problem.
A 'Legal Limbo'
A stateless person is someone who is not considered a citizen of any country, according to the United Nations. Being stateless often is caused by a lack of birthright citizenship, the legal right to citizenship given children born in a country’s territory.
In Colombia, due to the exodus of more than 3.7 million Venezuelans from their country, 24,000 Venezuelan babies have been born stateless since the beginning of the crisis, according to June government data.
Colombian laws dictates that if at least one parent did not have citizenship or legal permanent residency — a miniscule percentage of the Venezuelans arriving at the country’s doorsteps — the child would not receive Colombian citizenship. That created a growing number of stateless infants in Colombia, the biggest receiver of the migrants, since the Venezuelan exodus began.
That, in turn, made way for what experts called a “more vulnerable” population within an already desperate group of people fleeing Venezuela because stateless individuals often lack access to medical services, education or the ability to vote. They’re effectively in a “legal limbo,” said Juliana Vengoechea, a researcher with Open Society Foundation, a U.S.-based group that funds independent human rights and justice groups.
“They're stuck in a country without rights, but then they’re not able to exercise freedom of movement,” Vengoechea said.
That changed in August when Colombian President Ivan Duque decreed that Colombia would make an exception for children born to Venezuelan parents and give Colombian citizenship to those children and to babies born over the next two years.
But human rights defenders called the decree a temporary fix to larger problem, and worry that the damage done by Colombia’s constitution may already have had a ripple effect on the children and their families.
“The constitution of Colombia is still the same,” said Florencia Reggiardo, attorney and coordinator of the Americas Network on Nationality and Statelessness.
Venezuela’s migration crisis began in 2016, when the economy went into a freefall and brought with it shortages in food and medicine and an emerging medical crisis. As the situation worsened in 2018 and 2019, pregnant women like Rodriguez flooded into Colombia to give birth and seek medical aid difficult to find in Venezuela.
“There was nothing,” Rodriguez said. “Here, at least I have the chance of getting the medical services.”
For years, Colombia did not provide automatic birthright citizenship – or jus soli, the “right to the soil” – to those simply born in the nation. While Rodriguez’s baby did qualify for citizenship in Venezuela, it’s virtually impossible to obtain. Rodriguez and her baby would have to travel back into Venezuela, but the country is sinking deeper into political violence, food and medicine shortages.
Children like Rodriguez’s were instead dependent on Colombia, a country that has struggled with the rising tide of Venezuelan migrants. While the rule change marks a significant turning point for the 24,000 children born without a nationality, Reggiardo said, the country will struggle to provide that legal status to those children because many parents don’t know that their children were born without a nationality in the first place.
'Not Valid for Nationality'
Up until August, when a baby was born to Venezuelans without Colombian citizenship or migratory visas, the parents were given a “certificado nacido vivo,” a birth certificate that many mistook as testament their child is a Colombian citizen.
But a line at the bottom said otherwise: “Not valid for nationality.”
That important fact was largely unknown among many of the women streaming across the Venezuela border.
In the maternity ward in Hospital San Jose, a public hospital in the border city of Maicao, about half the women interviewed by USA TODAY thought their baby would be born Colombian. Most others thought their child would be Venezuelan.
Still, other mothers, like 23-year-old Liliana Gonzalez, were simply confused.
Gonzalez had been staying in a dusty informal migrant settlement on the border and, like Rodriguez, had come to Maicao to give birth. She’d wanted to have her baby in her home of Maracaibo – a city devastated by the country-wide blackouts that swept through Venezuela in March – but was forced to flee to Colombia for medical care.
“I’m scared, because I don’t know if he’s Venezuelan or Colombian,” Gonzalez said in May, peering down at her newborn baby snuggled in the crook of her arm. “I don’t have a paper that tells me, well, who he is.”
Now, as Colombia attempts to resolve its emerging human rights crisis, it’s unclear how many of the parents of these babies will know what resources they have to access their child’s nationality, or even know that their child doesn’t have a nationality.
“Most of them don't know the rights that they have,” said Reggiardo, the attorney.
This lack of knowledge or resources and basic documentation has been one of the core problems in the exodus of millions of migrants from Venezuela. Migrants cross the Venezuela border in growingly desperate conditions, sometimes walking for days and in various states of starvation or deteriorated health. They often lack basic documentation like valid passports because it’s become practically impossible to access those documents in the collapsing country.
For many, the complex legal maze that the statelessness situation has presented is not the foremost concern; rather, it’s more basic human needs like access to food, shelter and work.
Birthright Citizenship Around the World
Birthright citizenship gained an international spotlight after U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise that he would end the U.S. constitutional right of birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.
Trump railed against the idea of migrants using their child’s birthright citizenship to stay in the U.S. without being deported. In October, the President told Axios in an interview that he wanted to use his executive power to end birthright citizenship.
“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years ... with all of those benefits,” Trump said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”
That, however, is incorrect. More than 30 other countries have similar birthright citizenship laws, most in the western hemisphere. Other countries that eliminated birthright citizenship have seen the rise of stateless populations, sometimes also referred to as “ghost citizens.”
Worldwide, an estimated 15 million people are stateless, according to the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI), an international non-profit focused on the issue of statelessness worldwide. Every year, about 70,000 more children are born into statelessness, according to ISI.
For decades in the Caribbean, undocumented Haitian women fleeing deep poverty would cross to the neighboring nation of the Dominican Republic.
They would give birth to children who would legally be Dominican but, for years, the Dominican government imposed increasingly stricter birthright citizenship policies on children of Haitian descent. In 2013, a ruling stripped Dominican nationality from anyone born to undocumented parents or grandparents since 1929.
Those residents were unable to access education, medical services, find work or vote in the only place they had ever called home. Because of the long history of persecution of people of Haitian descent in the country, they became victims of xenophobic attacks and even expulsion from the Dominican Republic, according to Jonathan Katz, a National Fellow at D.C.-based New America and former Associated Press journalist who covered Haitian statelessness.
“It’s like all the things they need to do to live a healthy and complete life have suddenly been made impossible for them,” he said.
Only Ones who Benefit are Smugglers
Colombia’s legal framework may have already had a significant ripple effect as the exodus of migrants spreads across Latin America. Colombia is the largest receiver of Venezuelans in the world and has accepted more than 1.2 million migrants. It’s also a transit zone, a place Venezuelans pass through on their way to other countries like Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, which have all accepted hundreds of thousands of migrants.
Those children born stateless who have passed into other countries will effectively remain stateless, Reggiardo said, forced to return to either Colombia or Venezuela to gain legal recognition.
“A big problem is the children that were born in Colombia with this (legal) situation, who after that, migrate again with their parents to other countries in the region,” she said. “These children, they have to travel to Colombia to request their nationality.”
For many who arrive on their last leg to other countries around Latin America without food, without shelter and without documentation, that journey is impossible.
Instead, they continue in the shadows, likely without access to education, more complex medical services or the right to legally migrate. Francisco Quintana, Andean director for Center for Justice and International Law, a D.C. international legal initiative protecting human rights in the Americas, said human rights defenders worry that migrants with those children will be forced into the hands of human traffickers or into dangerous situations to cross borders.
“The fear is that people will not stop,” he said. “With more walls, more papers, migration does not stop and the only people that are benefited by these situations are the smugglers.”
Others have already been pushed into drastic circumstances.
Venezuelan migrant Nairobi Correa Martinez in a migrant soup kitchen in border city of Cucuta, Colombia in February as her 4-year-old daughter Fabiana brushed her small hand on her mother’s bulging pregnant belly.
They had left their country at the beginning of the year so Correa could give birth outside of Venezuela. She, like many migrants in Venezuela, hadn’t had a single checkup for her pregnancy.
“Imagine being sick and unable to get anything practically ever,” she said. “It's hard to get anything. All of it, medicine, toiletries, sustenance. Right now, everything is horrible.”
The goal was to stay for a month in Colombia to give birth. The border wasn’t what she had expected and it had been hard on them. It was impossible for her to find work because business owners wouldn’t let her bring her young daughter along. Instead, they landed at the doors of a soup kitchen, accepting plates of food they wouldn’t have been able to afford outside.
Correa said when she first heard murmurings that if she gave birth in Colombia, her child may face issues with their citizenship, she decided she had to go back to Venezuela. There was no food, not even the most basic medicine, but there she had family and the assurance that her baby would be Venezuelan.
“Yes, I’m scared, but at the same time, I have to do it,” Correa said.
Though Colombia’s August decree is an important step, said Reggiardo, the attorney, it is a short-term one.
“If we have a solution solely based on solidarity, it means that these are only temporary and for a specific situation as it is this one,” she said. “I mean, what is going to happen to children born from other nationalities?”