This month the big topic of discussion about Venezuela isn’t focused on its plummeting oil output or food shortages or economic collapse. It’s about invasion.
According to reports, last year President Trump told top aides he wanted to order a military invasion of Venezuela.
Those aides talked him out of it, of course. But the reports have Venezuelans like 19-year-old Camila Duarte feeling confused – and irritated.
“I think it’s hypocrisy,” says Duarte, who with her mother and younger brother is an applicant for U.S. asylum. For the moment they’re living in Deerfield Beach. And like a lot of Venezuelans – and Venezuelan expats here in South Florida – they’re asking a question:
If Trump considers Venezuela’s socialist regime disastrous and dictatorial enough to invade, why doesn’t he consider Venezuelans oppressed enough to receive more U.S. visas and asylum?
“You’re denouncing what is happening in Venezuela and the human rights violations, but yet you won’t give asylum to Venezuelans who are coming here to survive,” says Duarte.
Duarte’s mother was an attorney in Caracas who opposed leftist President Nicolás Maduro. Duarte says government officials harassed the family and threatened them with violence. Regime loyalists threw rocks and garbage at their car.
“We’d go to school and there would be people asking about me and my brother,” Duarte recalls. “So it was very dangerous.”
Duarte’s confident they have a strong asylum case. Meanwhile they have work permits here, and Duarte was recently accepted to the University of Florida in Gainesville. But after five years she admits that she – like many Venezuelans awaiting asylum now – is nervous.
“I personally am scared that because of the new anti-immigrant policies, and Trumpism,” says Duarte, “we’re going to go in front of that judge and he’s gonna say that we’re not allowed to stay here anymore, because I don’t know what I would do. I cannot imagine going back.”
Duarte fears the anti-immigrant climate under Trump means fewer Venezuelan families like hers are getting asylum. Venezuelans say they’re already seeing a drastic reduction in the number of U.S. visitor visas they’re being granted – and that the visas they have are often being revoked.
“This is really, really crazy,” says Maria Trina Burgos, a Venezuelan-American immigration attorney in Doral. “And it’s really worrisome.”
Burgos says more and more Venezuelans here are calling her because relatives back home had their U.S. visas canceled – usually without explanation.
“There is nothing we can do,” says Burgos. “The [U.S.] embassy [in Venezuela] just says, ‘Oh, we revoked your visa; you can apply later again.’ But they will never give you the visa back. Never.”
The State Department says it does not comment on visa issuances or revocations. But Burgos says she partly gets why the Trump Administration is pulling back on visas for Venezuelans. Millions of people are leaving the country’s humanitarian crisis – and authoritarian regime – each year. But many who come to the U.S. with visitor visas are staying here illegally.
“If you will give the six-month visa, they stay years,” says Burgos.
As for asylum, Burgos says U.S. officials are also catching more Venezuelans filing false claims of violent regime persecution. The reality is that most of them are escaping the economic catastrophe – but legally that’s rarely if ever grounds for asylum.
“The Venezuelan situation should be considered as an asylum cause,” Burgos says. “People think, ‘You have to protect me, this country is falling apart.’ But [U.S. officials] don’t [have to]” under those circumstances.
Venezuelans now request U.S. asylum more than any other nationality – and their numbers are rising about 150 percent each year. Even so, the recent trend and fears are causing many Venezuelans to emigrate somewhere besides the U.S. – especially to their South American neighbors.
Among them is Venezuelan computer engineer Albert Martínez. I met him recently as he crossed into Cúcuta, Colombia, enroute to a new life in Lima, Peru – because his request for a U.S. visa had just been denied.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s really, really impossible right now to get the [U.S.] visa,” Martínez said. “It’s easier to go to Lima.”
U.S. immigration experts like Burgos say a big problem is the false expectation raised by the experience of Cubans coming to Florida from communist Cuba. For decades they only had to step on U.S. soil to get legal status. That’s no longer the case – but it lingers in the minds of asylum-seeking Venezuelans like Duarte, whose family say they’re escaping socialist repression.
“When they feel they’re not treated the same way as Cubans,” says Duarte, “they’re very angry about that.”
But Venezuelans are discovering it’s a different time now. And under Trump – a much different time.