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Venezuelans seeking asylum present unique challenge to Trump administration

Lawyer Jodi Goodwin, center, speaks to migrants seeking asylum near the international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Having fled political persecution in Venezuela, Branly Flores and his teenage daughter, Branyerly, crossed the Rio Grande in 2019, asking the U.S. government for asylum. Like tens of thousands of others, they were turned back across the border into Mexico to await a court hearing.

The father and daughter spent seven months living in Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and after they were summoned to a U.S. courtroom in late January, they were shocked when the immigration judge issued a ruling: Flores was granted protection and was allowed to enter the United States.

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His youngest daughter was not. Branyerly, alone and penniless, returned across the Rio Grande, to Matamoros.

“It’s hard to understand how my victory in winning protection could result in my daughter’s being placed back in danger,” Flores said in an interview from his new home in Tennessee. “I cannot live knowing I can’t protect my baby girl.”

Amid the Trump administration’s policies to close off the border to Latin American asylum seekers, the U.S. government is still separating families as they attempt to cross into the United States. As the Flores family’s situation shows, the administration is struggling with how to handle an increasing number of Venezuelans appearing at the border.

While most asylum seekers are sent back to Mexico or are flown to Guatemala to seek refuge there — policies that have been effective at causing border crossings to wane — Venezuelans present a dilemma for the U.S. government. While the Trump administration publicly sympathizes with the opposition to the oil-rich country’s socialist leader, Nicolás Maduro, it is also making it more difficult for the country’s political refugees to seek help within the United States as part of its broader policies of restricting immigration.

President Trump called opposition leader Juan Guaidó Venezuela’s “true and legitimate president” as he stood in the gallery during his State of the Union address. While promising support for the “righteous struggle for freedom” of Venezuelans, the U.S. government has been turning away asylum seekers who arrive at the southwest border and ignoring pleas from Guaidó for the U.S. to grant humanitarian protections to his compatriots fleeing Maduro’s government, such as temporary protective status.

Trump is “caught between two different narratives,” said Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and social justice. “We hear a lot of talk about solidarity, but it seems this solidarity ends when Venezuelans leave their border.”

Venezuelans have been the top nationality filing what are known as affirmative asylum applications since 2017, meaning they sought asylum at their first opportunity, whether at the border or while visiting the United States on a visa. Jessica Bolter, of the Migration Policy Institute, said a majority of the Venezuelans who have similarly filed for asylum do so after arriving legally.

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But between 2017 and 2018, the number of asylum applications Venezuelans have filed after they were arrested in the interior or at the border jumped from 412 to more than 5,000. In fiscal year 2018, several dozen Venezuelans were apprehended at the border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Months later, that number swelled to 2,202 — a sign, experts say, of Venezuela’s deteriorating political climate.

“As the more vulnerable populations and those with less means are migrating, fewer visas are available now that consular services closed down in March 2019,” Bolter said. “People are fleeing direct political persecution and the lack of basic human necessities that come from the failure of the state.”

CBP officials said they cannot comment on individual cases for privacy reasons. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review referred inquiries about the Flores family to an immigration court manual that shows judges have discretion in separating cases. Administration officials declined to comment on the specifics of the family’s case.

Branyerly’s arrival in Mexico coincided with one of the administration’s latest transit bans, which barred certain asylum seekers arriving after July 16 from making claims if they had not already sought protection in another country on their way to the United States border.

The teenager arrived 11 days after the rule went into effect. Immigration advocates challenged the policy in federal court, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the administration to implement it while courts review it.

Flores was a longtime manager for a private company that operated Caracas’ metro system, which was later nationalized under the socialist Venezuelan government. He declined a promotion that came with a caveat: To execute the ruling party’s agenda and recruit employees to join the civil militia.

His supervisors later learned that he supported the opposition, and on the way home one day in May 2018, he was kidnapped, beaten and tortured. Days later, he fled the country. His two older daughters and wife joined him in Tennessee on travel visas that July, and they petitioned for asylum upon arrival.

But Branyerly’s travel visa had expired. The recent high school graduate stayed behind in Venezuela, hiding in a friend’s home for a year. Her father said he had hoped his attackers had forgotten about him and Branyerly would be safe. When she received threatening phone calls, Flores immediately boarded a flight to Venezuela to retrieve his daughter.

Together, they flew to Panama and on to Mexico City, but they were unable to get past immigration. They entered Mexico a week later via another city. The pair reached the U.S. border in late July 2019, crossed the river, surrendered to Border Patrol officials and asked for asylum. Both were sent back to Mexico to wait their court hearings.

Branyerly went to each hearing with her father. They obtained a lawyer. They brought evidence and were hoping it would be enough to allow them to rejoin their waiting family.

The judge granted Flores protection because he was able to establish that a return to Venezuela likely would lead to his torture — a high standard that is rarely reached in asylum cases.

Branyerly’s petition was separated from her father’s, and the judge concluded that the 18-year-old was not in the same danger, according to their lawyer, Jodi Goodwin. She was sent back to Mexico.

“We couldn’t believe it. We were in complete shock,” Branyerly said in an interview from Matamoros. “I walked off the bridge numb and dazed and just sobbed. Then, a stranger from Cuba helped me find a hotel, because I had no money.”

Goodwin, who has several Venezuelan clients, filed an appeal and exhausted other avenues to try to win relief for Branyerly. Goodwin has taken the teenager to the Gateway International Bridge between Brownsville and Matamoros three times to request parole, which has been denied each time.

“Her life is in the same danger” in Mexico, Goodwin said, noting that Trump could easily stop the “Remain in Mexico” program and ease the situation for Venezuelan refugees.

Gunfire in Matamoros has kept Branyerly barricaded in an apartment with another Venezuelan family that has taken her in. She said she spends most of her days sleeping because it is the easiest way for her to pass the time.

Branyerly fills the hours in between with phone calls to her mother and remembering her vacations to the United States. When things were normal in Venezuela, she said, the teen planned to study veterinary medicine.

“I had no idea that the U.S. would treat me this way,” Branyerly said. “I’m just a kid, and I didn’t come to ruin your country.”

On Wednesday, Goodwin took Branyerly to the bridge yet again. She was denied. The lawyer pressed CBP officials at the port to arrest the young woman, because Goodwin would prefer that Branyerly be in U.S. custody than spend another night in Mexico.

“At this point, detention is safer,” Goodwin said.