Politics & Government

As Dems play catch-up on Venezuela, immigration attack could fall short

A demonstrator dressed as Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolivar is silhouetted against a national flag during a tribute to the dead on July 24 in Venezuela.
A demonstrator dressed as Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolivar is silhouetted against a national flag during a tribute to the dead on July 24 in Venezuela. AP

Democrats see Donald Trump’s tough-on-immigration stance as a political pitfall for Florida Republicans who profess to care about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.

But Venezuelan immigration advocates disagree.

A Trump-sponsored system that rewards job skills and English speakers over familial connections could actually benefit Venezuelans, whose relatively high levels of education and English competency could put them ahead of other groups trying to get into the United States, especially other Latin American groups.

“The vast amount of Venezuelans who are coming here have advanced degrees,” said Jorge Guttman, a Miami-based attorney and Vice President of the Venezuelan American National Bar Association.

According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Venezuelan immigrants ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to just 29 percent of Hispanic immigrants overall. About 70 percent of Venezuelan immigrants speak English proficiently, according to Pew.

“If there were to be some sort of merit-based immigration measure imposed I think that Venezuelans for the most part would not be necessarily affected,” Guttman said.

That could neutralize arguments against a merit-based immigration system as a political weapon for Democrats to use against Republicans, who are already emerging as the key advocates in South Florida for Venezuelan-Americans.

Trump has spent months talking tough on Venezuela, arguing that Barack Obama and Democrats did little to help Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition and political violence. As the situation worsens, Venezuelans fed up with Nicolás Maduro’s regime will likely turn to the Untied States for refuge.

“The community that is coming to the U.S. from Venezuela is highly educated and most obtain their green cards through an employment-based opportunity,” said Adriana Kostencki, president of the Venezuelan-American chamber of commerce and an attorney who focuses on immigration law.

In fact, Venezuelans are more educated than the overall U.S. population, where 33 percent of all adults have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher and the U.S. Hispanic population, where 15 percent have bachelor’s degree or higher.

Part of the Trump-sponsored plan, dubbed the Raise Act, would slash the number of green cards available on a yearly basis from more than 1 million to about 500,000. The Venezuelan attorneys and some Republicans, including Marco Rubio, are not in favor of reducing the number of green cards.

But a system that curbs the overall number of immigrants and downplays family ties would have less of an effect on Venezuelans than on other immigrant groups, given the number of Venezuelans living in the U.S., about 225,000, is lower than the number of Mexicans, Cubans or Dominicans currently in the United States.

There are still questions over how the Raise Act will move through Congress. Rubio said the bill won’t pass as written.

“I think the White House knows that you don’t have 60 votes in the Senate,” Rubio said.

Rubio said he’s long been an advocate for an immigration system that priorities job and language skills over familial connections, even though his parents came to the United States as low-skilled Cuban immigrants in the 1950s.

Venezuelans in Florida see the recent sanctions on Venezuela by Trump and supported by Rubio as hard evidence that Republicans are going to bat for them. And the community is still wary of elements of the Democratic Party that associated with Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez.

There are two examples of the relationship between Caracas and Democrats that stick in the minds of Venezuelans.

The first is the “Joe-4-Oil” program sponsored by former Democratic Rep. Joseph Kennedy II that distributed discounted heating oil from Citgo, a subsidiary of the Venezuelan government, to low-income households around the country. The second is former Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s move to block a Venezuelan sanctions bill in 2014 because it would hurt a Citgo refinery in her home state of Louisiana.

“There were a lot of setbacks because of the Democrats,” said Ernesto Ackerman, a conservative who leads a non-profit designed to help Venezuelan-Americans become citizens. “My organization had to do rallies in Louisiana when Landrieu received $500,000 from Citgo. She made a lot of harm for us and we had to tell people in Louisiana, ‘Do you want a senator who makes decisions because of another nation’s blood money?’”

Helena Poleo, a Democratic Venezuelan-American political consultant based in South Florida, said the longtime association between Democrats and Chávez makes it hard for Democrats to win over Venezuelans with an anti-Maduro message now that Trump and Rubio are speaking out.

“It’s a lonely island to be a Venezuelan-American Democrat, let me tell you,” Poleo said.

Poleo said Democrats should argue that Trump’s anti-immigration stance will hurt the Venezuelan community, especially recent immigrants who may not have the money to afford an immigration attorney or get a visa through a U.S. employer.

But she hasn’t heard much proactive talk from Democrats. Instead, politicians such as Sen. Bill Nelson merely parrot the message of Trump and Rubio, usually days after Republicans make the initial announcement and gain political goodwill in the community.

“This is a chance for them to be able to actually come out and speak for it,” Poleo said. “I know that Bill Nelson has said stuff, but it’s really sad that I’m not able to come up with several names” beyond Nelson and state Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, who are speaking out about Venezuela.

“This is not the first time that a tough stance on immigration kind of faces off against being tough on a regime,” Poleo said. “There is no doubt that the Maduro regime is a dictatorship but we’ve seen this with Cuba as well. The Republicans own the Cuba issue yet they have a tough stance on immigration.”

Poleo and Ackerman both agreed that it would be nearly impossible for the Trump administration to engineer a special immigration status for Venezuelans akin to the wet foot, dry foot policy that benefited Cuban immigrants for decades. Such a policy, while popular in South Florida, would anger many in Trump’s base.

It’s a great PR speech to say...Maduro is bad, but when it comes down to it there’s only so much that the U.S. can do and that the U.S. is willing to do,” Poleo said. “All this PR and rhetoric...helps the Republican party not only with the Venezuelans but also the Cubans. They all say it, the road to a free Havana goes through Caracas. Right now it’s helping them with the Venezuelan vote.”

And as Republicans look to defeat Nelson and maintain majorities throughout Florida in 2018, attacking Democrats on Venezuela could pay off politically, even if Florida Democrats are now talking tough on Venezuela.

Last month, national Republicans’ first radio ad against Nelson was in Spanish and targeted Miami’s Cuban and Venezuelan communities.

“In the past, he (Nelson) has aligned himself with communists and dictators,” the ad said, adding that Nelson “went to Venezuela to admire Chávez’s revolution” and “supports murderers.”

PolitiFact rated the ad as “pants on fire” but Ackerman said portraying Democrats as soft on Maduro will always play well with Venezuelan voters.

“As American citizens, Venezuelan-American citizens, we have been working since 2012 for the sanctions and we didn’t have nothing, no answer, no help,” Ackerman said. “You can see in the Venezuelan community, in the church when the vice president was here, Marco Rubio got a standing ovation for like five minutes. Rubio is an idol now for the Venezuelan community and he should be, there is nobody who is talking every single day about it.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty