Fabiola Santiago

Trump must back up his tough talk against Maduro with TPS for Venezuelans in the U.S.

What’s a presidential hug worth?

It’s a serious question. Really.

Because if Donald Trump’s embrace of Aminta Peréz from his presidential podium in Miami recently meant something, the Venezuelan mother wouldn’t be suffering under his watch.

Here, the president told us on live television, is a mother who has endured the unthinkable under the brutal regime of Nicolás Maduro, her son Oscar executed by Maduro’s goons despite the rebel police officer’s surrender.

A grateful, weeping Peréz returned Trump’s affection on stage. It was a touching moment in a speech packed with the big promise that “a new day is coming in Latin America.”

Yet, since arriving at the Tijuana-San Diego entry point in 2017 and asking for political asylum — as is lawful to do — along with Oscar’s wife and children, Peréz has met with nothing but mistreatment and hostility from U.S. immigration officials.

If this happens to the mother of a man Trump called a hero and freedom fighter, what can other Venezuelan exiles expect from the U.S. government?

Peréz not only endured detention, she was shackled like a criminal and was separated from her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, she told El Nuevo Herald reporter Antonio Maria Delgado. And, in what represents another low point for the people in charge of these detainees at the border, Peréz was admonished not to cry or she would be placed in isolation and denied visits.

Immigration custodians asked this of a mother who had already lost one son and was desperately worried about Oscar, who had rebelled against Maduro and had sent his loved ones into exile.

Again, I ask: What are the presidential hugs and kisses Trump bestowed on this mother worth?

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Aminta Perez, whose son was killed by Venezuelan military. Trump spoke at the FIU-Ocean Bank Convocation Center in Miami, Florida, Monday, Feb., 18, 2019. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Because if Trump’s tough talk against Maduro, if his intervention in Venezuela doesn’t add up to humane treatment of Venezuela’s exiles in the United States, how can his administration’s immigration policies be credible and just ones?

Peréz — and all other Venezuelan exiles who exist in immigration limbo in Doral, Westin, and other places in the United States where they’ve sought refuge from death, chaos and hunger — should be protected from deportation and such treatment.

They should be able to get work permits, driver licenses and whatever else they need to survive their exile however long it lasts.

There’s rare bipartisan consensus on this. Bills presented in Congress by South Florida representatives and Florida’s senators, and also Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, address Venezuelans’ need for temporary protected status, or TPS. Trump has indicated he would sign the Venezuelan TPS bill if Congress passes it, but legislating, amid so many conflicting priorities and controversy, moves slowly in Washington.

Venezuelans are a textbook case for the need to issue TPS to people in this country. Trump has the power to extend such protection with an executive order — but hasn’t issued one or promised one.

Democrats challenged Trump not to come to South Florida without a plan to address the many Venezuelans facing deportation, but he ignored it.

He came. He called Maduro names and hugged effusively. He campaigned for re-election in 2020.

But that hasn’t translated to immigration status for Venezuelans.

One thing is certain: The president could provide concrete relief for the Venezuelans’ immigration limbo if he wanted to, and he could do it as fast as he put together the humanitarian aid package that so rattled Maduro that he burned two aid trucks.

Granting protections to local Venezuelans was important before Trump took on such a key role in removing Maduro. It’s a moral imperative now.

Marili Cancio, a GOP operative and lawyer in Miami-Dade, tried to explain away the president’s neglect on the show “This Week in South Florida” by saying that Trump’s goal was for Maduro to leave power — and for Venezuelans to return home to a restored democracy.

Fine for her to say that from the comfort of Miami, but even in the best case scenario, Venezuelans are facing chaotic years ahead. Maduro and his supporters aren’t going to give up in a jiffy just because Trump says so, or threatens, or sanctions.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelans already here have to eat and pay rent, and face an overwhelming amount of uncertainty.

While Trump looks the other away on this issue, the people he has pledged to help are suffering.

It’s a no-brainer.

President Trump must back up his Venezuela tough talk with TPS for Venezuelans in the United States.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”