Yessika Godoy waits in line outside a government office in Bogotá, Colombia, where she's trying to get her ID card restored.

Amid immigration crackdown, Colombia revokes national IDs for thousands of Venezuelans without warning

The Colombian government has revoked national IDs belonging to 43,000 Venezuelan immigrants, following a sweep to root out fraudulent citizenship. Those who applied for citizenship with documents deemed insufficient now face bureaucratic, social and legal hurdles — and possible deportation.

The World

Yessika Godoy waits in line outside a government office in Bogotá, Colombia, where she's trying to get her ID card restored. Without it she said she is "blocked off" from everything.

Manuel Rueda/The World

Yessika Godoy stood in line outside a government building in Bogotá, clutching a folder that contained her birth certificate, a photocopy of her deceased mother’s ID card and other documents showing her ties to Colombia.

She was trying to get her national ID card reinstated after it was canceled without warning in January by the national registrar’s office, leaving her with no legal status in the country and subject to deportation.

“Without an ID, I can’t get any work. I’m shut out of everything.”

Yessika Godoy, Venezuelan in Colombia

“The last two weeks have been very hard on my family,” said Godoy, who makes a living from part-time nursing jobs at hospitals and labs. “Without an ID, I can’t get any work. I’m shut out of everything.”

Godoy was born in Venezuela to a Colombian mother, and moved to Bogotá five years ago, where she quickly obtained citizenship and her national ID card as evidence of this status. 

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She’s one of 43,000 Venezuelan immigrants who had their legal citizenship status canceled in Colombia recently, after officials decided to update voter rolls and take a closer look at how people born outside the country got their citizenship.

Yessika Godoy holds a photocopy of her national ID card, which was canceled in January.

Yessika Godoy holds a photocopy of her national ID card, which was canceled in January. In Colombia, an ID card, known as a cedula, is required for most basic things, from taking a flight to opening a bank account.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

Colombia’s National Registrar says many Venezuelan immigrants made mistakes — or possibly used forged documents — when they applied for citizenship over the past 10 years. So now, they must reapply or face legal consequences.

But activists argue that the ID cancelations are largely the result of administrative errors made by clerks at notary offices that have struggled to cope with historic numbers of Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

In Colombia, a national ID card, known as a cedula, is required to perform dozens of everyday tasks, from getting health insurance to booking a flight.

Related: Many Venezuelan migrants in Latin America struggle to get vaccinated

The ID cancelations have plunged thousands of immigrants into a nightmarish scenario in which they can no longer get paid by their bosses, access their bank accounts or travel within the country, without the risk of being arrested.

Godoy was told that her ID was revoked because she did not present a birth certificate from Venezuela that was properly notarized when she filed her citizenship application in 2017.

She said that back then, clerks at a notary’s office accepted her documents nevertheless, and granted her a Colombian ID card, which she went on to use without a problem, to travel and get health insurance. But those rights are now suspended.

“It’s very frustrating,” Godoy said, with her voice breaking up as she recalled the humiliating moments she had endured.

The 40-year-old nurse found out that her Colombian ID had been canceled at the airport, as she was trying to take a flight to Spain for a holiday with her husband and two kids.

An immigration officer looked at Godoy’s passport, accused her of falsifying documents, and sent her to a police station. She spent two nights in detention and was threatened with deportation to Venezuela.

Immigration officers eventually released Godoy under the condition that she reapply for citizenship within two weeks.

“I don’t understand how this could happen,” Godoy said. “I always tried to do everything right.”

In recent years, almost 2 million Venezuelans have moved to Colombia to escape political and economic turmoil.

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Many have Colombian parents and are allowed by the nation’s constitution to claim citizenship upon arrival, or even at Colombian embassies abroad. 

The Colombian Registrar’s Office said that last year, it checked the records of nearly 300,000 people born outside the country who had been granted citizenship.

It found that more than 40,000 presented incomplete documentation when they applied for citizenship, leading to their IDs being revoked.

Human rights groups argue that most people were not warned that their IDs were going to be canceled, which made the process unnecessarily painful. 

“We have people that are not receiving treatment for cancer and mother’s that can’t register their children in school.”

Gabriela Arenas, director , TAAP Foundation

“We have people that are not receiving treatment for cancer and mother’s that can’t register their children in school,” said Gabriela Arenas, the director of the TAAP Foundation, a group that is helping Venezuelan immigrants who had their IDs canceled. “We have people that are losing their homes because they lost access to credits.”

Arenas argued that the National Registrar’s office could have warned people that there were problems with their documentation, and given them a chance to correct them before canceling their IDs.  

Venezuelan immigrants line up outside a branch of the National Registrar in Bogotá, Colombia.

Venezuelan immigrants line up outside a branch of the National Registrar in Bogotá, Colombia. They had their IDs canceled and filed petitions to have them restored.

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

Over the past 10 days, her foundation has helped 5,000 people file official complaints, demanding the restoration of their citizenship.

So far, Arenas says about 200 people have been able to get their IDs back. And they weren’t even required to present new documents.

Related: Reclaiming Colombia’s Black history, one tour at a time

“That indicates that maybe someone in the process, some of the employees that the national registry had reviewing documents, made a mistake,” she said. “Maybe we are seeing something related with xenophobia.”

Officials at Colombia’s National Registry admit that mistakes might have been made by their own clerks or by notary offices.

But they say the registry must still ensure that everyone who has obtained citizenship did so with proper documentation.

Venezuelan immigrant Biqueren Parada also had her ID canceled and brought a DNA test to the registrar's office. She wanted there to be no doubt that she was the daughter of Colombians. 

Venezuelan immigrant Biqueren Parada also had her ID canceled and brought a DNA test to the registrar's office. She wanted there to be no doubt that she was the daughter of Colombians. 

Credit:

Manuel Rueda/The World

“This isn’t something minor,” said Rodrigo Perez, the registry’s director. He added that criminals born in Venezuela have even registered as Colombian citizens to be able to travel to different countries.

But rights groups insist that thousands of immigrants are now paying dearly for bureaucratic mistakes.

“We are talking about thousands of people that, a week ago, used to love Colombia. ... And right now, that love is not necessarily the same.”

Gabriela Arenas, director, TAAP Foundation

Arenas says that people from all walks of life have been affected by the ID cancelations, and that the incident will undermine the Colombian government’s credibility.

“We are talking about thousands of people that, a week ago, used to love Colombia,” she said. “And right now, that love is not necessarily the same.”

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