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Latin America Report

Trump's Deportation Suspension Both Gratifies And Galls South Florida Venezuelans

TrumpDoralVenezuelans.jpeg
Pedro Portal
/
Miami Herald
Trump meeting with Venezuelan expats in Doral last summer.

Venezuelan exiles were happy to see President Trump finally grant their community relief from deportation — but many are angry he didn't order it years ago.

Talk to anyone in the Venezuelan community right now and you may hear really mixed feelings.

Last week — on the last night of his presidency — Donald Trump halted the deportation of undocumented Venezuelans now living in the U.S. The suspension will last 18 months, and they can work here legally during that time.

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Trump’s order could benefit as many as 200,000 Venezuelan exiles like Greilys Duartes, who lives in Doral — and who, on the one hand, considers this wonderful news.

“It’s a huge relief for Venezuelans like me who’ve been living in panic from day to day,” said Duartes, who fled Venezuela’s political persecution and economic collapse four years ago with her husband and two young sons.

They’re still trying to gain U.S. asylum — and the fear of deportation and unemployment had been hanging over their heads.

But Duartes and many other Venezuelans, regardless of legal status, are also confused, if not angry. Trump could have granted that protection from deportation — known as Deferred Enforced Departure, or DED — years ago.

Why, they ask, did he make them wait until he was leaving the White House?

“All that time,” Duartes conceded, “it would have been a help to be less scared and put food on the table legally.”

READ MORE: Venezuelans to Trump: If Maduro Regime Evil Enough to Invade, Then Give More U.S. Visas

Venezuelan-Americans like Maria Corina Vegas, an attorney in Pinecrest and a U.S. citizen, take a more critical view of Trump’s parting decision.

“Although I am thankful Venezuelans are going to benefit from it,” Vegas said, “it’s still a slap in the face.”

Vegas supported President Biden in the November election. But she feels any Venezuelan has reason to question Trump’s DED order — which she compares to Trump sarcastically tossing paper towels to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“Like that moment, this was just a paltry gesture,” Vegas said. “It was dismissive of the Venezuelans’ plight and suffering.”

Although I am grateful Venezuelans are going to benefit from this, it's still a slap in the face.
Maria Corina Vegas

In its statement on Trump’s DED order last week, his staff insisted Trump was in fact acknowledging Venezuela’s suffering. But the country was already gripped by one of the worst humanitarian crises in South American history when Trump took office in 2017. He didn’t give Venezuelans deportation protection then because his anti-immigration Republican political base opposed it.

That’s also why Congress didn’t give Venezuelans another kind of deportation protection — Temporary Protected Status, or TPS — even though bills were introduced by Republican politicians including Miami Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (whose measure passed in the House).

About 1,000 Venezuelan exiles were deported under Trump, sometimes through third countries, which legal and human rights experts believe violated refugee protocols.

“Even during [the COVID pandemic] they kept deporting Venezuelans surreptitiously through Trinidad and Tobago,” Vegas said, “against international law.”

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Franklin Gutierrez
Venezuelans escaping their country's political and economic catastrophe arrive at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Doral for aid in 2017.

So why the Trump turnaround at the last minute?

He perhaps wanted to thank the Venezuelans who voted for him, known as "MAGAzuelans." Most Venezuelans in Florida supported Trump; they applauded his economic sanctions and other actions against Venezuela’s authoritarian socialist regime, including his recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.

Many also believed Trump would militarily invade Venezuela, an illusion he and his administration sometimes encouraged with rhetoric like "all options are on the table."

Others also see a longer-term political reason.

RE-ELECTION BUMP?

“He did it to help Republicans here in Florida,” said Helena Poleo, a Venezuelan-American political analyst and communications consultant in Miami.

Poleo points out that Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, had been lobbying Trump to issue the deportation protection. So had South Florida’s Republican congressional delegation.

That’s because they now need to preserve their own standing with Venezuelan voters, since Trump’s campaign to oust dictatorial Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro failed. Poleo suggests many Venezuelans view Trump’s eleventh-hour deportation protection as a sort of compensation for that failure.

“Maduro is still there, and things are worse instead of better,” said Poleo. “[The Republicans are] definitely admitting the fact that the Venezuelan situation will continue longer than any of us would want it to.

“The Venezuelan community is breathing easier now [with DED], so this could give those Republicans a re-election bump in two years — even despite the fact that they had four years to do this while so many Venezuelans were being deported.”

President Trump is very concerned about Venezuela — he honestly wants to free all Venezuelans.
Ernesto Ackerman

Venezuelan expats who supported Trump don’t entirely disagree with that assessment of why Trump granted deportation protection, or DED, at this moment.

“Here [in the U.S.] I know there [are Venezuelans] suffering, who cannot get an honest job because they don’t have documents,” said Ernesto Ackerman, a Venezuelan expat who heads Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, a South Florida group pushing for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.

“So DED at least will be 'un salvavida,' you know, a life preserver, for 18 months.”

But Ackerman insists either way, most Venezuelan voters in Florida will continue to support Republicans because they feel the GOP has done more to press for regime change in Venezuela — a cause Ackerman has discussed with Trump face-to-face.

“President Trump was always mentioning Venezuela during his presidency,” Ackerman said. “He was very concerned. In my two meetings with him I noticed he honestly wanted to free all the Venezuelans.

“I think DED is a welcome move, and I’m glad it will help maybe 200,000 Venezuelans in the U.S. But our job is also to liberate 30 million Venezuelans in Venezuela.”

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Venezuelan expat leader Ernesto Ackerman (left) with President Trump in Miami in 2019.

Venezuela policy is now in the Biden Administration’s court — and so is the question of whether to give Venezuelans living here the stronger, longer-lasting form of deportation protection, TPS.

“Trump could have signed [a TPS order] to help Venezuelans that same night he granted only DED, and he didn’t do it,” said Ade Ferro, a Venezuelan expat in Weston who heads humanitarian aid efforts for Venezuela and voted for Biden.

Ferro points out that during his campaign, Biden promised to secure TPS for Venezuelans. As a result, she believes that “at the last minute Trump wanted to take a little bit of the [deportation protection] spotlight away from Biden with the Venezuelan and Latino community, especially in South Florida.

“But I think Trump miscalculated because there’s a sense here that until the very last minute he played with our pain and then in the end made a very cynical political move.”

Poleo agrees with that assessment.

“If Trump had really wanted to take the wind out of Biden’s sails on this, he would have granted Venezuelans TPS – which is a more bona fide immigration status,” she said.

President Biden is now moving to win that spotlight back: on Monday the Democrats, who now control Congress, presented a new Venezuelan TPS bill.