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Trump administration deports Venezuelans while pledging aid

In this Feb. 21, 2018 photo, Venezuelans cross the International Simon Bolivar bridge into the Colombia. As Venezuela's economic crisis worsens, rising numbers are fleeing in a burgeoning refugee crisis that could soon match the flight of Syrians from the war-torn Middle East.
In this Feb. 21, 2018 photo, Venezuelans cross the International Simon Bolivar bridge into the Colombia. As Venezuela's economic crisis worsens, rising numbers are fleeing in a burgeoning refugee crisis that could soon match the flight of Syrians from the war-torn Middle East. AP

Despite promising millions of dollars to help fleeing Venezuelans and exhorting allies in the region to "do more" about the starvation and oppression of the Venezuelan people, the Trump administration has been quietly deporting Venezuelans who came to the United States illegally or overstayed visas out of fear of going home.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has removed 150 Venezuelan nationals in fiscal 2018, including nine this month, when the Trump administration was in Lima, Peru for the Summit of the Americas and promising to do “everything in our power to support those fleeing tyranny.”

“Unfortunately, a lot Venezuelans here don’t have green cards, are not U.S. citizens, don’t have any visas, but they still have fear to go back to Venezuela,” said Adriana Kostencki, a lawyer with the Venezuelan American National Bar Association in Miami, which is lobbying the administration to protect Venezuelans from being deported. “But it’s fighting against an administration that has not been very amicable on immigration.”

Vice President Mike Pence delivered a passionate speech in Lima, Peru before more than 30 heads of state at the Summit of the Americas earlier this month. He promised an additional $16 million to other nations to help them settle and care for Venezuelans who have fled the country's economic crisis and pushed allies to follow the United States’ lead on isolating the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

During a meeting with Venezuelan opposition leaders, Pence addressed the lack of food and basic supplies at major hospitals. He said many Americans don’t understand the perils in Venezuela that have forced millions to flee the “oppression of the dictatorship” that has created the largest displacement in Latin American history.

“We are with the people of Venezuela, and we'll continue to do everything in our power to provide sustenance and support to those who have fled this tyranny,” Pence told the group.

The Trump administration said that of the 150 Venezuelan nationals deported, about a third were convicted criminals who had committed a spectrum of offenses from traffic incidents to kidnapping and sexual assault.

The administration did not respond to questions about the deportations, but said they are discussing internally ways to help Venezuelans who arrive at the border, including the possibility of increasing asylum for Venezuelans.

More Venezuelans are seeking asylum in the U.S. than from any other country. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service says more than 27,600 Venezuelans requested asylum in fiscal 2017, an almost 400 percent increase over the last two years.

Asylum may be granted to people who are unable to return to their home country because of persecution based on their political opinion, race, religion, nationality or particular social group. Those who receive it can live and work legally in the United States. They can later apply for permanent residency and then citizenship.

But asylum has been elusive for Venezuelans. A senior administration official said there are no nationality based caps or numerical limitations for asylum cases. And each asylum claim is evaluated on its own, taking into account the individual circumstances in each case and applicable law and policy.

John Pratt, a South Florida immigration attorney who represents Venezuelans in asylum cases, said the majority of asylum requests are denied.

The U.S. government also sped up the asylum application process for the most recently filed cases making it tougher for those who are unqualified to work while they wait for their applications to be processed. Venezuelans are particularly affected, considering the high numbers of recent applications and challenges of getting approved.

“What we’re trying to make sure is that those who are coming in and requesting asylum, they actually meet the qualifications to stay here and get their work permit while their application is being moved and they’re not just trying to circumvent the process,” the senior administration official said.

Kostencki has also pushed the administration to protect Venezuelan nationals via Temporary Protected Status. The special status allows people from a country that suffers a natural disaster, armed conflict, or other extraordinary event to remain in the United States and work legally until the conditions for which TPS was granted are resolved. But the Trump administration has been critical of the program and is ending the special status for hundreds of thousands of Haitians, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans and is unlikely to extend the status to another group.

James McCament, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote to Kostencki last year that the administration was monitoring the crisis in Venezuelan but that TPS is based on specific criteria and that the administration also has humanitarian programs available to eligible Venezuelans outside of TPS.

Absent TPS or asylum, Venezuelans face little opportunity to remain legally. Pratt sees irony in lack of protections afforded to Venezuelans considering the administration’s aggressive push on Venezuela and promises to help in any way possible.

“On one hand, we recognize they’re in some sort of special category,” Pratt said. “And on the other hand we don’t recognize that category anyway. Not for immigration protection.”

Franco Ordoñez: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com, @francoordonez.

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