Trump Is Tough on Venezuela—but Won’t Let Fleeing Venezuelans Into the U.S.

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A woman from Venezuela sits next to suitcases and bags in front of the entrance gate of the Venezuelan Embassy in Lima, Peru. 

Though they heard President Trump condemn the brutality of the Venezuelan government in his State of the Union speech last week, Venezuelans around the world are in for some disappointment if they expect a warm welcome from his administration.

Once one of Latin America’s most prosperous and stable nations, Venezuela has been reduced to a pit of human suffering. The country’s ongoing economic crisis has led to a collapse of its healthcare and school systems, widespread food shortages, and an epidemic of violence that’s given Venezuela one of world’s highest murder rates. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the the authoritarian government of President Nicolás Maduro, with millions more projected to do so in the coming months.

You can’t blame Venezuelans for being confused about United States policy, however. Under Trump, the U.S. was the first of 50 some countries (and counting) to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president until credible elections are held. The Trump administration has imposed severe sanctions against the Maduro government and the country’s oil industry. It has even gone as far as to threaten military intervention if Maduro does not step aside. 

Trump has shown that when it comes to sounding tough, he’s in his element. When it comes to providing refuge from the regime he’s thundered against, however, it’s an altogether different matter. To the tens of thousands of Venezuelans in need of protection in the U.S. and those at risk in other countries, the administration has slammed its doors.

In fact, the United States has deported more Venezuelans in the past few months than it’s resettled Venezuelan refugees in years. 

In October and November of last year alone immigration officials deported more than 120 Venezuelan nationals, according to the latest statistics compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Meanwhile, the U.S. has not resettled a single Venezuelan refugee since 2013, according to government records, nor does it have any plans to do so in the near future. 

When asked if the State Department was at least accepting submissions from Venezuelan refugees, a spokesperson said: “At this time, the United States is not in discussions about resettling large numbers of Venezuelan refugees.”

At a time of deepening crisis for displaced people worldwide, including Venezuelans, the Trump administration has brought refugee admissions to historic lows, from the 110,000 yearly limit set by the Obama administration in 2017, to 45,000 in 2018, and now 30,000 in 2019. Moreover, the actual number of refugees resettled is much lower than those ceilings. Under Trump, the U.S. has admitted the lowest number of refugees in the almost four-decade history of the resettlement program.

“The U.S. is abdicating its role as a leader on refugee protection and admission of immigrants,” says Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies. “The [federal government] should be looking at the Venezuelan crisis holistically. That includes diplomatic efforts, sanctions, humanitarian funding, and, yes, helping refugees and protecting asylum seekers.”

About 80 percent of the more than three million displaced Venezuelans remain in neighboring countries in South and Central America, with Colombia hosting 1.1 million people and Peru receiving more than 600,000. For Venezuelan migrants, political asylum and generous temporary legal residency in these countries are lifelines, keeping them safe from starvation and the violence back home. But the picture hasn’t been as rosy for those arriving in the U.S.

Despite the crisis in Venezuela, immigration judges in the U.S. have denied roughly 50 percent of all asylum applications made by a Venezuelan over the past five fiscal years, according to TRAC. For comparison, asylum applications from Chinese and Syrian nationals had a denial rate of only about 19 percent and 14 percent, respectively. 

For the third year in a row, Venezuelans are the largest group by nationality of asylum applicants in the country. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received more than 20,100 petitions for asylum from Venezuelans from January through September of last year (the agency has yet to release data for the rest of 2018). The total number is on track to match and even surpass the 27,629 applications filed with agency in 2017 and is already almost four times greater than the 5,603 petitions made in 2015. 

Many believe that the number of rejections for Venezuelan asylum seekers is likely to rise, thanks to changes to U.S. asylum laws made by the Trump administration. Last June, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned an Obama-era immigration ruling that allowed certain asylum seekers to gain entry into the U.S. by citing fears of violence by non-state actors. The ruling was expected to have significant impact on the migrants escaping gangs and domestic violence in Central America, but it will also affect Venezuelans who have suffered street violence or persecution from paramilitary groups. 

Miami-based attorney Ivan Guerrero says he’s witnessed the implications of Sessions’ ruling first-hand while representing multiple Venezuelan asylum applicants. A client of his, a nurse from Venezuela, was denied asylum by a judge despite having her life threatened by colectivos, grassroot militant groups known for their attacks on journalists and government critics. 

As news reports of Venezuela’s dire medicine shortages began to heighten, Guerrero’s client was asked to falsify hospital records to show that there was sufficient medicine to treat all patients—while in fact, patients were dying due to the scarcity. She refused and, soon after, was threatened at her home by colectivos. Fearing for her life, she fled to the U.S and applied for asylum. 

The immigration judge, operating on Sessions’s ruling, ultimately denied Guerrero’s client’s claim on the grounds that she could not prove that that the militant group was explicitly government-affiliated. (Human rights organizations, the Organizations of American States, and even the U.S. State Department have all described the colectivos as government-sponsored.)

As asylum applications from Venezuelans have shot up, so have denials for Venezuelans applying for visas. The number of non-immigrant visas issued to Venezuelans has plummeted, from 237,926 in fiscal year 2015 to 28,540 in FY 2018, according to State Department records

Immigration attorneys like Guerrero and Miami-based Venezuelan organizations claim that the U.S. consulate in the capital city of Caracas is also arbitrarily revoking tourist visas for Venezuelan nationals abroad and in the U.S., in what appears to be an attempt to preempt potential asylum applicants. 

“Trump has been hypocritical on Venezuela,” says Adriana Kostencki, an attorney with, and president of, the Venezuelan American National Bar Association (VENAMBAR). “If you really care about the horrible things happening in Venezuela, you should care about the Venezuelans escaping to your country.”

Kostencki’s group was among the first organizations to formally petition the White House to extend deportation protections known as Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Venezuelans who’ve been forced to leave their homeland. The Department of Homeland Security has the power to designate the countries from which displaced people can receive TPS if conditions on the ground are too dangerous for those already in the U.S. to return or if the country itself is unable to handle the influx of any who would be deported. That designation provides legal status and work permits for those who qualify.

VENAMBAR estimates that there are about 150,000 Venezuelan nationals in the U.S. who would qualify for temporary protections. 

The Trump administration, however, is at war with TPS, having attempted in 2017 and 2018 to rescind protections for more than 300,000 nationals from Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Sudan. This year, Senate Republicans, in close consultation with the White House, advanced a proposal during the shutdown talks that would have gutted TPS for current beneficiaries and completely barred any future applicants without other legal status from being protected. 

Last month, bipartisan legislation to grant TPS to Venezuelans for 18 months was introduced in both the House and Senate. Kostencki and congressional Democrats remain hopeful that Republican support for the bills will be enough to convince the White House to act, though any decision on expanding TPS will surely not arrive before the current funding battle in Congress is settled, if it arrives at all. 

Many expect the flow of refugees from Venezuela to increase. The United Nations said in December that it projects two million additional migrants and refugees to leave the country in 2019 alone and appealed to the international community for $738 million in humanitarian aid to help the region handle the exodus in the coming months. 

A recent model-based analysis released by the Brookings Institution estimates that if oil prices and oil production in the country continue to collapse—as they surely will following the Trump administration’s new sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company—the crisis could cause the total number of emigrants to spike to more than eight million. That would far outnumber the estimated 5 million refugees who left Syria during its civil war and would likely overwhelm any existing regional response. In such a scenario, the model’s authors project that the humanitarian crisis would cost billions in remittances and foreign aid. 

The U.S. has provided more than $140 million since FY 2017 to “support affected countries’ emergency efforts and build their long-term capacity to host the more than three million people who have fled repression and chaos in Venezuela,” according to a State Department spokesperson. 

In his State of the Union speech,Trump attempted to equate leftist policy proposals in the U.S. with those of the Maduro regime, an old favorite of state-side conservatives. By crusading against the Venezuelan government while simultaneously shutting the door on Venezuelans displaced by the crisis, Trump can claim to be doing the right thing while continuing to attack two of his base’s favorite punching bags: immigrants and leftists. 

Until the Trump administration begins to address the disconnect between its foreign policy on Venezuela and its immigration policy towards Venezuelans and other migrants, however, it will be hard, if not impossible, to take the president at his word when he says he stands in solidarity with the Venezuelan people. 

This article has been updated. 

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