Miami-Dade County

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo seeks to clarify Venezuelan-refugee bill

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo stands with Helene Villalonga and her son, Juan Correa Villalonga, after Rep. Curbelo spoke about his newly introduced bill, the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act, on Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo stands with Helene Villalonga and her son, Juan Correa Villalonga, after Rep. Curbelo spoke about his newly introduced bill, the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act, on Tuesday. CMGuerrero@elnuevoherald.com

A bill to grant permanent residence to some Venezuelan refugees would have limited reach and does not resemble the Cuban Adjustment Act, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo said Tuesday.

“It’s not an adjustment act, it’s a law to protect refugees,” Curbelo, surrounded by Miami-Dade Venezuelan leaders and activists, said at a Miami news conference. “It’s a much more modest retroactive law that would not open the door to automatic asylum.”

Curbelo is one of the main sponsors promoting reforms that could help to “halt the abuse” of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil to apply for permanent residence after a year and a day.

His new bill, named the Venezuelan Refugee Assistance Act, would encompass refugees who arrived before Jan. 1, 2013, who don’t have a police record and who have not participated in repressive acts.

The protection would include Venezuelans whose deportation order is approved and who have not committed a crime. If the bill passes, those who qualify would have until Jan. 1, 2019, to apply.

Curbelo said he is hopeful the bill would succeed, partly because two Democratic members of Congress from Florida — Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alan Grayson — have endorsed it, along with Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“We must acknowledge that Venezuelans have endured a lot of suffering in the last two decades under the Chávez and Maduro regimes,” Curbelo said. “They cannot return to Venezuela, where they would face persecution and repression.”

This law “would allow these people to join our community and contribute to this great country.”

We must acknowledge that Venezuelans have endured a lot of suffering in the last two decades under the Chávez and Maduro regimes. They cannot return to Venezuela, where they would face persecution and repression.

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo

There is not an exact figure on how many people would benefit from this law, but Curbelo said some estimates indicate it could be up to 90,000.

Currently Venezuelans arriving in the United States request political asylum, which allows some of them to remain in this country with a work permit while they wait for an interview with immigration authorities. Appointments for those interviews have a long backlog; some people are not scheduled for them until 2018 or 2019.

U.S. immigration laws establish that to qualify for political asylum, applicants must prove that they cannot return to their country for fear of retaliation because of religious beliefs, identity, nationality, membership in certain social groups or political opinions.

Juan Correa Villalonga, a young Venezuelan who was deported in 2009 and was able to return to the U.S. after a long battle waged by his mother, activist Helene Villalonga, supports the bill and said he has traveled to several states as part of a campaign to mobilize groups to favor the bill.

“Had this law existed in 2009 I wouldn’t have been jailed for two months and deported, and wouldn’t have lived the hell I had to endure in Caracas,” said Correa Villalonga, who first arrived in the United States at age 11 when his family was fleeing Venezuela.

His family says it was conned by a lawyer in their application for political asylum and never knew that a deportation order had been hanging over them until Correa Villalonga was arrested.

Eventually, Helene Villalonga obtained the support of several lawmakers to bring back her son with a humanitarian visa.

Helene, president of the Association of Venezuelan Women in Exile, said that she is now fighting for the protection of other Venezuelans because the situation in her country “is critical.”

“My commitment is to achieve an immigration reform for all undocumented people in this country,” she said. “It’s a goal I have set for myself.”

Curbelo said he eventually will seek temporary protection status for Venezuelans, to include people who arrived after Jan. 1, 2013.

“We want this project to be successful, which is why we didn’t want to be overly ambitious, and it’s a bill open to amendments and changes. It isn’t final,” said the congressman, who asked that voters call their representatives and ask them to support the bill.

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