As Venezuela spirals into chaos, fearful Venezuelans are seeking help to come to the United States or, if they are already here, looking for ways to avoid returning home. Nowhere in the Venezuelan diaspora is this panic being felt more than in South Florida, home to the highest percentage of Venezuelans in the United States.
Many local immigration attorneys are getting frantic calls and emails from Venezuelans asking whether it is true their family and friends can fly to Miami International Airport and be admitted with no visa, or whether they should apply for political asylum right away at the airport. Others have asked whether Venezuelans in this country illegally can now seek political asylum or otherwise avoid deportation.
Certain attorneys and notarios have taken advantage of the turmoil to egregiously misinform Venezuelans. For example, on Feb. 27 on America Noticias, a Spanish-language news show, a local attorney stated categorically that Venezuelans unlawfully present in the United States can now apply for political asylum because the government has softened the requirements for asylum in order to accommodate Venezuelan applicants in a time of crisis.
This is patently false.
The impact of such misinformation from supposed legal authorities is strongest in our state. Some 40 percent of the estimated 250,000 Venezuelans in the United States reside here, the majority of them in the Miami area.
The potential damage to those who believe the advice of the television attorneys is immense. For example, Venezuelans, including their children, seeking asylum could be detained at the airport and sent to a detention center for weeks or months while their claim is investigated, and they could ultimately be deported.
If an immigration judge finds they committed fraud and orders them deported, they could be barred permanently from returning to this country.
“Not all Venezuelans qualify for asylum and the loss of a claim can result in removal from the U.S. and the loss of the ability to return to the U.S. in the future,” the South Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association stated in a March 4 release in response to the misinformation. “The U.S. has an extremely strict approval process for granting asylum. . . . General unrest, bad conditions, poor leadership and opposition to the current government in Venezuela do NOT warrant a grant of asylum.”
To date, the U.S. government has not granted any special relief to Venezuelans. Here is rundown of the latest immigration-related problems and efforts:
• Democratic Florida Congressman Joe Garcia has asked President Obama to halt deportations to Venezuela and to more rapidly process pending asylum cases. He has asked the president to direct U.S. agencies to give special attention to cases filed by Venezuelans. There is no action yet.
• Garcia has asked the president to consider granting Venezuelans a special immigration designation known as Deferred Enforcement Departure that would allow them to live and work here legally for now.
Some have called for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, granted to nationals from countries overwhelmed by conflict or natural disaster — including Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan and Syria. But Garcia said TPS for Venezuelans would be “premature” because it would imply the fight against the Venezuelan government is over. There is no decision yet on deferred action.
• Many Venezuelans are in the United States on the L-1 “intracompany transfer” work visa, which requires proof of an ongoing affiliation between the U.S. employer and the visa holder’s employer or company in Venezuela. Some of these visa holders are seeing government takeovers of the Venezuelan business, or government directives forcing huge price reductions that are leading to punishing business losses.
If this has not happened yet, the risk hangs over them. These L-1 visa holders may lose their lawful work status here due to the demise of the company abroad. This scenario applies equally to employment-based green-card petitions that require the same corporate affiliation, so Venezuelans with this type of pending permanent residence case are also in jeopardy.
It is important for Venezuelans in crisis to separate gossip from fact and avoid rash steps that could damage their immigration status and prospects. It is also vital to seek legal advice from reputable immigration attorneys or nonprofit organizations, such as Catholic Charities Legal Services of Greater Miami or Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ).
Jordana A. Hart is an immigration attorney with David J. Hart, P.A., in Miami.