A few years ago, US citizens watched Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon buckle under the weight of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria as millions of people crossed the borders between a collapsing Syria and its neighbors. While Lebanon and other countries in the region opened its borders and offered asylum to millions of Syrians, many refugees found themselves unable to work in their countries of refuge with little to celebrate and few options for the future. After several years of waiting, many, many, many of them decided to move on...to Europe. What happened next was the biggest humanitarian crisis Europe has faced arguably since the end of WWII.
Today, there are over 1 million Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and two million more in other countries in the region, but that number may only be the beginning. The United States is weighing a military intervention, awash with the dream of a pro-American government in Venezuela at long last. Meanwhile, the current government clings to power, sparking fears of a civil war. A war would trigger a massive refugee crisis that will make the current situation seem small by comparison. Venezuela currently has a population of over 30 million and I am willing to bet that most of them have at least thought about leaving. Violence and open warfare would likely convince many people that staying in Venezuela is not an option.
The US didn't experience much in the way of consequences for its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, turmoil in the Middle East has not led to a huge refugee influx into the United States. One benefit to "over there" is that an ocean separates us from our current wars. But a war in Venezuela would be different. Very, very different. It would not take long for the consequences to be felt immediately and enormously on our border. A massive influx of refugees could trigger renewed violence in Colombia and worsen the regional security situation. Right now, there has been an enormous amount of solidarity in Colombia for Venezuelan refugees, but that feeling cannot last forever.
The Bush administration made foreign invasion and regime change seem easy and cost free. After all, here we all are, more than 15 years into the Forever Wars, and little of the turmoil we created in foreign countries has touched our peaceful shores. The number of Iraqi refugees in the US is so small that, statistically, most non-Iraqi US citizens will go their entire lives without meeting one. Most immigrants come to the United States in response to the push and pull of the global economy, much as US citizens continue to move abroad for work or family reasons. But humanitarian refugee flows are very different. They are sudden and desperate. When people need to flee, they will flee, period.
A war of intervention in Venezuela, or a civil war brought about by failed international diplomacy, would cause a serious refugee crises in the United States far beyond the pretend border crisis Trump railed about in the State of the Union the other night. (I say "pretend crisis" because of the percentage of new arrivals as a function of the total US population. I'm not very good at math, but the current US population is well over 300 million. We could easily absorb all of these refugees, so this is very much a crisis of our own making.)
A quick look at the asylum statistics from February shows that the number of Venezuelans claiming asylum already dwarfs claims from all other countries, though the number, a little over 2,000, remains so low that its effect on the life average, non-Venezuelan US citizen is probably close to zero. The total number of asylum screenings for 2016 were fewer than 100,000 for the entire country. While this was a huge increase since 2008, it represents a tiny fraction of total immigration to the United States and a drop in the massive bucket of US citizens currently existing on Earth.
Most US citizens alive today have never experiences an actual humanitarian crisis. Unless you are an immigrant, an aid workers, a soldier or a journalist, you have probably never been to a refugee camp or seen a mass border crossing. But we may be about to. Let's hope our government is ready for the challenge. Somehow I'm not filled with confidence that it is.