Latin America

Can Trump crack down on immigration and still be a champion for Cubans and Venezuelans?

In his effort to win a second term as president, Donald Trump has gone to great lengths to present himself as a champion for more than a million Cuban and Venezuelan exiles living in South Florida.

He’s backed an opposition movement to topple socialist Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and imposed stiff economic sanctions against the communist government of Cuba. Last month, Vice President Mike Pence came to Miami to roll out the Latinos for Trump campaign arm.

But as border politics hits fever pitch, Trump’s efforts to clamp down on immigration could disenfranchise the same voters he has worked so hard to court in Florida — a state that the president likely has to win in order to be reelected.

On Tuesday, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security initiated a new interim rule that could effectively block most asylum requests at the southern border, potentially stopping thousands of Cuban and Venezuelan exiles from entering the U.S. At the same time, two Democratic U.S. senators released a July 11 letter from the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stating that the Trump administration has no current plans to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelan exiles who have fled a country in the midst of political and economic upheaval.

“You can’t on one side say you support the Venezuelan people during a campaign rally and then turn around and deport thousands of them to a dire situation that could end up in their death or jailing,” said Democratic strategist Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan American who has backed Trump’s efforts to topple Maduro by supporting opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

But if there isn’t immigration relief in the U.S. or a dramatic change of leadership in Venezuela, “this will all be seen as a campaign stunt,” she said.

Cutting off routes from troubled countries could have devastating consequences for those hoping to escape to the United States. And due to changing immigration patterns, the southern border is an important access point for the two largest exile communities in South Florida.

While it was once common for Cuban exiles to make the dangerous trip across the Florida Straits, former President Barack Obama’s decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in early 2017 eliminated a special privilege that granted Cubans legal status once they reached American soil.

Even before that change, a circuitous route to the southern border through South and Central America was the primary means of migration from Cuba to the U.S. A family reunification program for Cubans has also been suspended after the United States withdrew most of its staff from the embassy in Havana nearly two years ago.

Twenty thousand Cubans are waiting on the island to reunite with family in the U.S., and their frustrated relatives have been calling the offices of Florida representatives and senators to seek a solution. The in-country refugee program also has been suspended in Cuba. And Cubans have to travel to a third country to apply for all visas, making visiting or trying to legally immigrate to the U.S. almost impossible.

There’s still another avenue for Cubans in the U.S. to stay legally, although it’s getting narrower. The Cuban Adjustment Act allows them to seek permanent status if they enter the immigration system and remain in the country for at least one year. But under the Trump administration, Cubans have been detained at the border before they can get in. And last fiscal year, the U.S. deported 463 Cubans.

On Tuesday, the DHS began requiring immigrants trying to cross through the U.S. southern border to first seek asylum in Mexico or a third country through which they’ve passed. Save a few exceptions, asylum seekers can ask for safe harbor in the U.S. only after being rejected elsewhere.

The Trump campaign declined to comment for this story, as did the White House.

But in enacting the new asylum rule, the DHS cited a “large number of meritless asylum claims” prompted by immigrants claiming a “credible fear” of returning to their home country. The number of people appearing before an immigration judge tripled from 2013 to 2018, and there are more than 900,000 cases — half of them asylum claims — pending before immigration judges, according to the DHS.

“Absent congressional action, the Trump administration is using all authorities available under the law to address the crisis at the border,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting director for USCIS, in a statement to el Nuevo Herald. “This rule aims to mitigate the crisis at the border by better identifying those in need of protection.”

The new asylum rule won’t apply to anyone who had sought asylum or entered into the U.S. immigration system before Tuesday. Immigrants who fear deportation may also still seek to block their removal to their home country if they fear persecution or torture, although that’s more difficult than seeking asylum under the processes of the U.S. immigration courts.

Attorneys are still trying to determine the exact consequences of the rule, which faces a court challenge. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government Tuesday in the Northern District of California, asking a judge to block the new policy.

But if the rule stands, Saman Movassaghi, an immigration attorney based in South Florida, said there will “definitely” be families in South Florida whose relatives will be blocked from gaining entry into the country.

“Everybody is still kind of processing this because it’s just so against the fundamentals of qualifying for asylum,” she said.

Recently, the largest group of asylum seekers by far has come from Venezuela, where the U.S. has recognized Guaidó as the rightfully elected president and moved to pressure Maduro to resign. The standoff has lasted months, and last fiscal year, 336 Venezuelans were deported, according to the DHS.

In the meantime, Trump could grant temporary protected status, or TPS, for Venezuelans with the stroke of a pen.

But on Tuesday, U.S. Sens Dick Durbin and Bob Menendez, both Democrats, released a July 11 letter from Cuccinelli explaining that the president is not willing to do so right now. Cuccinelli also said that recent court rulings blocking the Trump administration from ending TPS for Central Americans and Haitians has made it more difficult for Trump to grant the special designation for Venezuelans.

Democrats immediately pounced, calling Trump a “hypocrite” for telling Venezuelans in a rally this year in South Florida that he would fight for them in Venezuela and in the U.S. Democratic Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz all noted that House Democrats are actively pushing bipartisan legislation to grant TPS for Venezuelans.

“Trump’s actions continue to demonstrate his hypocrisy towards South Florida,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “He has single-handedly robbed Venezuelans and Cubans of one of the last methods of legally escaping brutal regimes by changing asylum laws, jeopardizing their safety and putting them at risk of deportation.”

But while both of Florida’s Republican senators said they support TPS for Venezuelans, they blamed gridlock in Congress for the quagmire at the border. Sen. Marco Rubio also said few Venezuelans are actually at risk of being deported.

“My bigger concern is that if someone who is Venezuelan is taken in, they spend two or three weeks in detention at Krome [detention center], for example, and then they’re let go but they have two or three terrible weeks and they lose their job, spend money on lawyers and the like,” Rubio said. “Obviously I support TPS but I’d like to see some other administrative remedy because frankly we’re wasting money going after people we shouldn’t be deporting and couldn’t even if we wanted to.”

Rubio said he hasn’t thought about whether Trump’s immigration actions and their effects on Cubans and Venezuelans will have political ramifications.

“There’s not widespread deportations of Venezuelans,” he said. “But I haven’t analyzed it politically so I don’t know.”