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As Trump tightens asylum rules, thousands of Venezuelans find a warm welcome in Miami

Venezuelan citizens living in Miami line up last year to vote in a nonbinding referendum against the Venezuelan government. The vote was organized by groups seeking to undermine Venezuela’s unpopular president, Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuelan citizens living in Miami line up last year to vote in a nonbinding referendum against the Venezuelan government. The vote was organized by groups seeking to undermine Venezuela’s unpopular president, Nicolás Maduro. (Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)
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MIAMI — Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States are arriving to this city in soaring numbers — and receiving a far warmer welcome than the Central American migrants President Trump wants to block at the Mexican border.

Last year, 27,629 Venezuelans petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for asylum, an 88 percent increase from 2016 and up from 2,181 in 2014. So far this year, the number of Venezuelans who have applied — nearly all of them in Miami — is almost three times as great as any other nationality, according to the latest USCIS asylum data.

Unlike the Central Americans who wade illegally across the Rio Grande and turn themselves in to U.S. border guards, the Venezuelans typically land at the Miami airport with tourist and business visas.

They are, in general, wealthier and more likely to have legal representation, an advantage that significantly boosts their chances of being allowed to stay, statistics show. And they have the backing of South Florida politicians, especially Cuban American lawmakers who view them as natural allies in a regional struggle against Latin American leftism.

The Venezuelans are fleeing a near-total societal collapse after two decades of socialist policies as well as years of governmental mismanagement, corruption and waste. The crisis has left nearly 87 percent of Venezuelans in poverty, generated the world’s highest inflation rate, and made food and medicine scarce.

Those who reach Miami are a small and privileged part of a much bigger refu­gee crisis. According to U.N. data, 180,000 Venezuelans fled their country during the first three months of 2018, compared with 217,000 during all of 2017. Most cross by land into Brazil and Colombia, and the exodus is likely to accelerate if, as expected, leftist Nicolás Maduro wins another six-year term in the May 20 presidential election.

The country’s main opposition parties are boycotting the vote, citing a looming fraud.

Venezuelans with the means to reach the United States can be confident that they’ll be allowed to stay. The U.S. immigration system considers them “affirmative asylum” cases because applicants who file such claims typically enter the country legally and then request permission to stay.

That differs from asylum seekers who file a “defensive” claim to avoid deportation, a category that would include the larger pool of Central American migrants arrested along the Mexico border. Affirmative applications can be approved by a USCIS asylum officer, rather than an immigration judge.

Central American migrants who traveled in a caravan to file legal asylum requests at the U.S.-Mexico border drew the ire of Trump this spring, and many of those travelers said they, too, were seeking shelter from gang violence and chaos back home. The majority of caravan members were from Honduras, where U.S.-backed right-wing president Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected last year in a contest whose results were rejected by international observers.

The percentage of asylum seekers who were denied reached its highest level in a decade last year, and Central American applicants were among the most likely to be turned down, according to immigration data compiled by the TRAC project at Syracuse University.

Michael Bars, a spokesman for USCIS, said the agency can grant asylum to “those who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion if returned to their native country.”

“Each asylum claim is evaluated on a case-by-case basis and determinations are fact-specific,” Bars said in a statement.

Mass exodus of Venezuelans overwhelms neighboring countries

In a city shaped by successive waves of refugees from communist-run Cuba, the asylum officers, immigration judges and wider political establishment are deeply sympathetic to the Venezuelans’ plight.

“If a client has a personal story that hits all the right notes, they will get asylum,” said one Miami immigration lawyer busy with Venezuelan clients. The attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid views, joked that Maduro is “paying for our family vacations” by sending him so much business.

Since Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, wealthier Venezuelans desperate to escape the socialist experiment in a country that used to be Latin America’s richest per capita have transformed South Florida. More than 130,000 Venezuelans now live in the tri-county region from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade County, including thousands who have scooped up multimillion-dollar condos and pricey waterfront mansions.

Some effectively bought their way in — obtaining special visas that grant residency to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in the United States. To a lesser extent, upper-class Venezuelans are still coming, with Miami developers still tapping their deep pockets to finance luxury high-rises. Last year, Venezuelans were the fourth-largest foreign investors in Florida real estate.

But added to the mix are a host of middle-class, professional Venezuelans — engineers, teachers, oil workers, small-business owners. Most new arrivals had managed in the past to secure U.S. tourism visas. Now, they often enter legally by plane and apply for asylum once they arrive.

“Out of every Venezuelan now coming as a tourist through [Miami International Airport], I’d guess 80 percent are going to apply for asylum,” said Elizabeth Blandon, an immigration lawyer based in Weston, a city north of Miami now nicknamed “Westonzuela” because of the flood of Venezuelan immigrants.

Entire South Florida neighborhoods have turned into Venezuelan enclaves. In Doral, a mix of urban sprawl and upscale communities in the shadow of the Miami airport, Venezuelans make up about 22 percent of the population of 58,000, compared with 12 percent a decade ago, according to Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez.

“Cubans [in South Florida] have great empathy for the Venezuelans; they are going through the same thing that our families went through,” said Bermudez, a Cuban American.

The latest U.S. immigration statistics show that Venezuelans are significantly less likely to be deported. Since the start of the current fiscal year, on Oct. 1, the United States has sent back only 150, and 248 during the 2017 fiscal year, when more than 74,000 were deported to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Carlos Colombo, an immigration lawyer whose firm has offices in Orlando and Miami, said Venezuelan asylum applicants have a success rate above 80 percent — compared with 50 to 60 percent for his Central American clients. That success rate, however, may begin to drop, he believes, given the surge of applicants, many of whom have fled violence and economic collapse rather than targeted political persecution.

“In the past, I think a lot of Venezuelans were hopeful that things would change, that things would get better in Venezuela, and they really did not want to leave,” he said. “But what we’re seeing now is that to a large extent, they have lost faith in outside pressure from other countries, including the U.S., in trying to have a regime change. The levels of poverty and crime is out of control, and they have lost everything, so people are giving up and leaving.”

Blandon said that, in several respects, they have become the new Cubans — a class of applicants who tend to enjoy high success rates in being granted legal status, in part because of their flight from left-wing, anti-U.S. governments.

Immigration officials, she said, are quick to challenge Central American asylum applicants, suggesting their struggles at home are more related to gang violence than official persecution. “But with the Venezuelans, the first thing they think of is that the government is killing its people. For that reason, the Venezuelans are good.”

One of Blandon’s clients is the owner of a mattress store whose wares were confiscated by the National Guard under Maduro’s Bed and Mattress Plan, which guaranteed that every Venezuelan would have a place to sleep. “That’s official persecution,” she said. “That’s reason for asylum.”

The man who’s betting he can be Venezuela’s next president

On a recent afternoon in Doral, around the corner from Arepazo, a restaurant known for its Venezuelan exile intrigue as much as its traditional cornmeal cakes, a steady flow of newcomers lined up in the hallway of a storage space where a nonprofit group was giving out food, clothing, small appliances and toys. Every Venezuelan approached by a journalist said he or she was in the midst of applying for political asylum.

Some cases appeared stronger than others.

One woman, a 47-year-old from Caracas who said she had worked at the Venezuelan Ministry of Education, fled to the United States in March after a dispute with her boss. She said she feared for her safety, mostly because she did not support Maduro.

“They make you wear red shirts — and if you don’t, they go after you,” said the woman, referring to the signature color of the ruling party. She declined to give her name.

The bigger problem, she said, was a lack of food. “There is nothing in the stores, and what’s there is too expensive. People are starving. Nobody wants to leave, but to survive, you have to.”

According to Venezuelan business executives, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas has become more selective in giving out tourist visas, and those who get them are receiving smaller windows for travel. In a statement, a U.S consular official said decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, adding that “consular officers reserve the right to limit visas for legal or policy reasons.’’

Antonio Marvel, 55, was among 30 Venezuelan lawyers named by opposition politicians last year as their candidates to replace the justices on the pro-government supreme court. Maduro denounced the move. Marvel and other lawyers were soon labeled “enemies of the state.”

Fearing arrest, he went into hiding — then sneaked out of Venezuela on a boat to the island of Curacao. From there, he boarded a plane to Miami. Arriving on a tourist visa to attend a meeting at the Organization of American States in Washington, he applied for asylum shortly after.

His wife and adult children have joined him in Miami, living in a modest rental in Doral. He said he believes the Venezuelan cause has gained more notoriety in the United States because its socialist system had run the nation into the ground.

“The Venezuelan regime has copied the Cuban model, and that’s why the situation we’re living has become more known,” he said. “But also because Venezuela is going through a deep humanitarian crisis. . . . I don’t think it has to do with the fact Venezuelan leaders are anti-U.S. We’re simply in worse shape.”

Trump proposal would penalize immigrants who use tax credits, other benefits

Yet, like the Cubans before them, the Venezuelans are emerging as an anti-communist special interest group in a key swing state where they are being aggressively courted by Republicans. After forcefully denouncing Maduro before a group of exiles in Miami last year, Vice President Pence invited some of them to his May 27 speech at the Organization of American States, where he is likely to make Venezuela a dominant theme.

To some extent, the desire to court a growing and influential community in a swing state has spilled over into the realm of immigration.

In April 2017, Marco Coello, a 22-year-old Venezuelan asylum seeker who was detained and allegedly tortured by the government in 2014, was arrested after his interview with U.S. immigration officials in Miami. Despite the fact that Coello had an active asylum case, officials said he had overstayed his visa and had been convicted of a misdemeanor for trespassing. “They wanted to have me deported,” Coello said.

Blandon, the lawyer, went public after Coello’s arrest. His case reached the office of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American politician who has guided the Trump administration’s hard line on Venezuela.

Rubio intervened in the case, Blandon said, and the next day, Coello was free.

Miroff reported from Washington.