For eight straight months, 13 years ago, José Antonio Colina — a former Bolivarian National Guard officer — was the sole target of a manhunt that changed his life forever. Now thousands of other asylum seekers from Venezuela are waiting to find out what is to become of them when a new president occupies the White House.
Colina, along with 13 other men who were all part of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, rebelled against then President Hugo Chávez after an unsuccessful coup d’état that took place in April 2002. They called themselves Militares de la Plaza Altamira, after one of Caracas’ main squares where demonstrations against Chavez took place.
Four months later, in February 2003, two bombs exploded in front of the Spanish and Colombian embassies in Caracas. Another one destroyed part of the Teleport Building at Paseo Colón Avenue later in April.
Colina was accused of plotting and conducting the bombings. He was labeled a terrorist and prosecuted under terrorism charges by the Chávez Administration.
“The Bolivarian Secret Police had express orders to kill me. To murder me. I was hiding under secrecy all over the country,” he said in Spanish. Colina now lives in Miami, Fla.
In the eyes of late President Chávez, Colina was a traitor.
As weeks passed, Colina says he started to realize that it was going to be impossible to avoid prosecution. Chávez’s secret police was getting closer, and staying in Venezuela became more dangerous every day.
By November 2003, Colina crossed from San Antonio del Táchira, in Venezuela, to Cúcuta in Colombia. A month later, he fled the country to the United States from Bogotá, relying on contacts in the Colombian police to allow him to board the flight to Miami. As soon as he landed in the U.S., Colina was detained.
He spent two years and six months in five different immigration prisons across the country, from Pompano Beach, Fla., to Houston, Tex.
In April 28, 2006, Colina was released. Eight days later, the U.S. State Department denied his extradition to Venezuela and protected him under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, signed by Venezuela country in 1985. Two years after his release, Colina founded VEPPEX — the Spanish acronym for Politically Prosecuted Venezuelans in Exile. Now he is a political asylee and he hasn’t returned to Venezuela.
“It has been 13 years since I have seen my parents,” he said, as his voice subtly lowers.
Just like José Antonio Colina back in 2003, 15,824 Venezuelans filed an asylum request after landing in the United States between October 2014 and June 2016. Almost half of them — 7,442 individuals — applied within the first six months of 2016. This represents an increase of 168 percent in comparison to the same period in 2015. Moreover, Venezuela surpassed China and Mexico as the largest nationality seeking asylum in February and April of 2016.
Julio Henríquez, a Venezuelan immigration expert and director at Boston-based Refugees For Freedom, says the phenomenon can be explained by two main factors. First, a humanitarian crisis based on a severe economic downturn. And second, the fear of political prosecution as President Nicolás Maduro, who became president following Chavez’ death in 2013, toughened detentions a year later.
Foro Penal Venezolano, a human rights NGO based in Caracas, has identified 5,853 detentions between January 2014 and June 2016, related to anti-government demonstrations and protests against food shortages, scheduled power cuts, and lack of water.
“There is a parallelism between political prosecution in Venezuela and the increase of asylum applications here in the United States. You can’t deny that,” Henríquez said.
Poverty has become another important factor within the humanitarian crisis.
Venezuela is under a severe and unprecedented economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that inflation will soar up to 1,600 percent by 2017, while the country’s gross domestic product will likely shrink 10 percent. By 2018, Venezuela’s gross domestic product per capita is also predicted to decrease to $3,364 U.S dollars, the same as lower income countries like Angola or Morocco.
The latest government-issued report says that 33.1 percent of Venezuelans are under the poverty line. But a variety of NGOs and independent sources state that the number of Venezuelans living below the poverty line rose from 52 percent in 2014 to between 76 to 80 percent in 2016. This means that nearly 10 million Venezuelans became poor in only two years.
A study conducted by Simón Bolívar University showed that nine out of ten Venezuelans cannot afford to buy enough food as shortages plague the entire nation.
The Council of the Americas reports that scarcity rates are rising up to 80 percent; while food prices have increased 56 percent in 2015, data released by the Venezuelan Central Bank shows.
Since the asylum surge started, José Antonio Colina’s cellphone won’t stop ringing. He says he receives at least 60 calls a day — about 20 coming from Venezuela, 15 from others countries and the remaining 15 from Venezuelans already living in the United States.
“I get them all the time, calls, emails. People are desperate to get out of Venezuela,” Colina said. His number is publicly posted on VEPPEX’s Facebook page.
However, the surge raises a big question: Do most Venezuelans who seek asylum have the right claims to do so?
The U.S. law states that asylum should only be granted when an individual is prosecuted in their home country by the government because of race, religion, nationality, political point of view, or membership in an activist group.
According to Henríquez, only two out of ten consultations he receives from Venezuelan nationals qualify for asylum under U.S. law. “They ones fleeing because of economic reasons outnumber the ones who are escaping political prosecution,” he said.
Colina agrees. “Only 10 percent of the people I interview have a solid case of government prosecution,” he said. “The rest are fleeing from the deplorable economic situation, crime and the arbitrariness of the regime.”
Most Venezuelan asylum seekers have entered the United States this year on a tourist visa, specifically under the B1/B2 visa class. Miami International Airport serves as the main port of entry where asylum is requested while travelers are processed by immigration officials.
Many ask for protection, refuse to return to Venezuela and justify their claim by saying they will work and contribute to the U.S. economy, Colima says
“It is a common mistake,” he said. “You just cannot say to an immigration officer that you’re here to work on a tourist visa. Of course you will be arrested.”
Official data released by the State Department shows that 223,854 U.S. tourist visas were issued to Venezuelan citizens in American embassies during the 2015 fiscal year, between October 2014 and September 2015. In the same period, the visa refusal rate for Venezuela was 15.57 percent — a number that is significantly lower than rates for Ecuadorian (31.34 percent), Dominican (33.78 percent) or Mexican nationals (20.17 percent).
Buying Some Time
Nationwide, there are eight offices in charge of handling the asylum requests in Arlington, Va., Chicago, Ill., Houston, Tex., Los Angeles and San Francisco, Calif., Miami, Fla., Newark, N.J., and New York, N.Y. In total, these offices have 170,380 cases pending decision according to the latest report issued by U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services in June.
As a result of the backlogs, officers are interviewing applicants who filed their requests three years ago in Miami. At the Los Angeles office, the wait can be up to five years.
Most of the Venezuelan asylum claims are handled by the Miami office. In June, this location received a total of 2,102 new cases and scheduled 278 interviews, of which 178 were actually conducted. During the same period, 1,370 Venezuelans requested asylum nationwide, ranking third behind Mexican (1,507) and Chinese nationals (1,649), according to data released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
As the backlog keeps growing, asylum seekers may remain in the U.S. up to five years until they are finally interviewed. “The immigration system in the U.S. is damaged. It doesn’t work well,” Henríquez said. “Some economic migrants coming from Venezuela take advantage of the asylum mechanisms when they do not have the rightful claim to ask for it.”
Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst at Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, agrees. “The fact that we are getting a huge influx of Venezuelans is only going to add stress to the asylum system,” she said. “It’s making a difficult situation even more difficult.”
According to Pierce, most of these cases will likely end in removal procedures, mainly because only a few meet the requirements of political prosecution and are mostly fleeing for economic reasons.
The future of Venezuelan asylum seekers in the United States is largely uncertain as the situation in Venezuela remains volatile. Also, as the U.S. election unveils the new occupant of the Oval Office, both candidates stand in very different perspectives in terms of asylum policies.
What are the candidate’s positions on Venezuela?
Donald J. Trump – Republican Party
- He is against Maduro’s policies and supports his opponents.
- He says that if Hillary Clinton wins, “the U.S. will be the next Venezuela.”
- On Sept. 16, Trump praised Venezuelans who are fleeing to the U.S. escaping the hardships in their own country. This was in a rally held in Miami, Fla.
Hillary Clinton – Democratic Party
- Her Party’s Press Secretary, José Artismuño, is from Venezuela.
- She says she supports the institution of democracy.
- Supports a continuation of Obama’s policies on Venezuela: calling Maduro’s government a threat to Venezuela’s stability, and a provider of instability to the region.
Where do the candidates stand on asylum and immigration policies?
- Supports a path to citizenship.
- Supports protection from deportation for families with children who are U.S. citizens or under the DACA program.
- Open to increase the intake quota of refugees and asylum seekers, but tightening the screening process.
- Plans to enact a comprehensive immigration reform.
- Wants to close private immigration detention centers.
- Create the Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Donald J. Trump
- Calls for massive deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants.
- Suggested a complete halt on refugee and asylum programs.
- Wants to build a wall at the Mexican-U.S. border. The cost of it is estimated to be around $5 billion, which he insists would be paid by Mexico.
- Supports an increase of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers from 5,000 to 15,000.
- Would raise wages [how would raising wages of immigrant visa holders make unemployed Americans a priority?] to be paid to immigrant visa holders, so unemployed Americans would “be a priority” for U.S. employers. It is a sort of tax for U.S. companies trying to employ foreign citizens.