With asylum claims to the United States from Venezuelans already having quadrupled since fiscal year 2015, the stream of people fleeing oppression as conditions deteriorate threatens to explode into a gusher.
Experts worry the United States could be caught flat-footed if it does not start making preparations to try to help neighboring countries accommodate the growing influx.
“We don’t have the capacity to relocate every Venezuelan who wants to get out,” said Matthew O’Brien, former senior adviser to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ombudsman. “I don’t know that anyone in the U.S. government has any plan for dealing with mass numbers of people from Venezuela.”
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President Donald Trump put Venezuela squarely in the spotlight on Friday by suggesting a possible military option for growing strife in the South American country.
U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services data indicate that asylum cases from Venezuelans jumped from 5,605 to 9,123 between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2016 — a 163 percent increase. A spokesman for the agency said the number of actual asylees is even higher because a single case can encompass an entire family.
From October through June, asylum cases from Venezuela totaled 21,655, already exceeding all of fiscal year 2016. That total does not include so-called “defensive” asylum cases involving Venezuelans already in the United States fighting deportation proceedings.
O’Brien, who now serves as director of research at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), said the potential exists for much larger numbers. He pointed to worsening economic conditions and growing violence as the Bolivarian system of the late Hugo Chavez and his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, crumbles.
The Economist earlier this year quoted a study by three universities indicating that 82 percent of the population has been driven into poverty, up from 48 percent when Chavez came to power in 1998.
And at 32 million, O’Brien said, the country has a population large enough to generate significant numbers of people arriving on U.S. shores despite its relative distance compared to Haiti, Cuba, Central America, and other troubled spots that have been rich sources of asylum-seekers in America. He said Venezuela is about 800 miles from Puerto Rico, with Florida about 1,300 miles away.
“That’s about a four- to five-day trip by boat,” he said. “That might not seem reasonable to someone who is not eating neighborhood cats or ripping up books to use as toilet paper.”
[lz_table title=”Fleeing Venezuela” source=”United National High Commissioner for Refugees”]Top countries for asylum applications from Venezuela
United States,3 117
United States,7 369
United States,18 312
Costa Rica,1 545
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O’Brien said the United States should be working with neighboring countries Brazil, Colombia and Guyana — the natural destinations for fleeing Venezuelans. He said the United States should consider offering aid to those countries, which would be cheaper than relocating tens of thousands of asylum-seekers.
Kyle Shideler, director of the threat information office at the Center for Security Policy, said people fleeing Venezuela pose some of the same security concerns as refugees from the Middle East. Venezuela is a dysfunctional society with a hostile government that cannot be counted on to cooperate with American authorities tasked with ensuring asylum-seekers are not a security risk.
Shideler noted that a whistleblower, the former legal adviser to the Venezuelan embassy in Iraq, accused his government of a scheme to sell passports and visas for thousands of dollars to people with ties to terrorism. CNN reported in February that a confidential intelligence document links Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami to 173 Venezuelan passports and identifications issued to people in the Middle East, including some with ties to the terrorist group Hezbollah.
“This is a pretty serious issue because of the nature of the Venezuelan regime,” he said. “There’s a genuine concern now that we could be letting in people who might not be who they say they are.”
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said asylum often is abused by people looking to escape bad economic conditions or generalized violence. It is intended to be reserved for people who have a “credible fear” or persecution or harm based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
“We should be concerned that our asylum system could be overwhelmed with asylum applications from people that are not necessarily persecuted or in personal danger but are looking to get out of Venezuela,” she said. “That bogs down our asylum system for people who really do merit this special protection.”
International law directs asylum-seekers to ask for help in the first closest country that can offer refuge. It is not appropriate for fleeing Venezuelans to go to the United States, she said, but she added that in the past the U.S. government has been lax in enforcing that standard.
Sometimes, the federal government has conferred Temporary Protect Status on foreigners whose home countries have experienced severe disruption. Vaughan said that “temporary” status usually ends up being not so temporary. Other times, she added, foreigners live in a quasi-legal state for years while adjudicators consider their asylum claims and then fail to return if they lose, or enter legally on visas and stay after they expire.
“Then these people end up staying here as illegal immigrants, with all of the problems that that entails,” she said.
O’Brien, of FAIR, said wealthy Venezuelans and business owners started coming to the United States years ago. That is extending to folks of more modest means, he added.
“We were already seeing an increase of people coming from Venezuela,” O’Brien said. “Now you’re seeing this explosion from regular people.”
(photo credit, homepage image: Effect Eco, Youtube; photo credit, article image: Carlos Diaz, Flickr)