Alicia Faneite left Maracaibo, in northwestern Venezuela, for a trip to Miami in March last year with her husband and 3 year-old son. Although all three had tourist visas, there were not going on vacation.
The Venezuelan journalist had received numerous threats because of her membership in the opposition party Primero Justicia and when she arrived in South Florida, she applied for asylum. Her husband, however, had to return to Venezuela three times because the family had to resolve outstanding issues, including medical examinations for their child and the sale of a property.
But the trips back home ended up being a mistake. In the last one, immigration officials canceled his tourist visa, saying he should either seek asylum in the U.S. with his wife or return to Venezuela. That's when the husband committed the worst mistake: he decided to return.
"[He] was afraid that latching on to my asylum claim could jeopardize my case," said Faneite, referring to her husband Leonardo Gonzalez.
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So today the couple lives a forced separation, with her in South Florida and him in the South American country. Like them, many Venezuelans have watched their plans to emigrate to the United States fail due to lack of knowledge about immigration laws and procedures.
Ignorance "is the common factor in which the Venezuelan community is living," said the activist Helene Villalonga, head of the Association of Venezuelan Mothers and Women Living Abroad, known by Spanish acronym AMAVEX.
"Ignorance is leading us to commit one mistake after another," she added.
One of those mistakes comes from the perception that any Venezuelan who reaches the United States can easily qualify for political asylum.
"If we don’t get a handle on that perception, the process will be trivialized," said Villalonga, whose organization guides individuals on migration options and evaluates cases "to see if they really qualify for political asylum."
According to immigration lawyer Irvin González, political asylum has become a way of "buying time in the United States."
Applicants receive a temporary status and after 150 days of submitting the application may request a work permit. Interviews with immigration authorities for political asylum cases are backlogged through 2018 or 2019.
Moreover, counsel warned that "if they are not strong cases, it would be unconscionable to process the application for asylum." Over the past two years González said he has only processed two political asylum applications, although potential clients are constantly seeking the service.
González stressed the importance of making an informed decision with respect to asylum. "Some tell me they are going to Venezuela to settle their affairs and then, when they return, they will seek asylum," said the lawyer.
The cases that are rejected during the interview with the immigration authorities can be defended in court, and appealed again if the asylum request is denied. But at some point rejected asylum seekers will face deportation.
"Eventually will come the inevitable," González said.
Ernesto Ackerman, of a group called Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, said that the past year has seen an increase in cases of people interested in applying for political asylum, many with "implausible arguments."
"They're looking for a desperate solution to obtain an immigration status," Ackerman said, warning that an increase in requests could hinder the process for "cases that actually qualify."
Several community organizations in South Florida are working on efforts to persuade President Barack Obama to grant deferred action, which would shield Venezuelans from deportation. A meeting with several members of Congress is planned for late August. But according to Villalonga, the community’s support for the proposal is vital.
"We don’t want to leave this proposal in the hands of politicians, so that it does not become politicized," Villalonga said.
The activist said that the group also is working on proposed legislation known as the “Venezuelan Adjustment Act of 2015,” which also aims to adjust the immigration status of Venezuelans.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Miami) said he was in conversation with other legislators and community activists to determine "the most appropriate way to assist those who can’t return to Venezuela during these turbulent times."
Follow Abel Fernández on Twitter @abelfglez