Originally Published in Politico
Sabrina Rodriguez - August 25, 2020
Lawmakers in both parties are urging the president to protect Venezuelans from deportation, but so far he's sided with immigration hawks.
President Donald Trump has long touted his policy on Venezuela as part of his commitment to fight socialism, but he has repeatedly refused to offer Venezuelan exiles protection from deportation.
With the election less than three months away, Trump has made Latinos in South Florida central to his reelection in the battleground state, repeatedly sending top administration officials down to Miami to tout his hard line against Cuba and Venezuela. The Republican National Convention will feature the two countries this week, as multiple speakers discuss their experiences with socialism — and warn that Democrats would replicate the hard-left policies of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments.
Allowing Venezuelans to live and work legally in the U.S. would be a clear political win for Trump and the GOP in Florida, but Republicans, former administration officials and Latin America analysts say it hasn’t happened because of a conflict between two main groups: Florida Republicans hoping to deliver another win in 2020 in the state, and immigration hardliners trying to keep immigrants and asylum-seekers out of the United States. And so far, the immigration hawks have won the president’s ear.
“It’s a clear outlier when you look at the administration’s Venezuela policy, but it’s not surprising when you see his broader restrictionist immigration policy,” said former GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represented a heavily Latino district in South Florida. Granting Venezuelans temporary protected status would be a “slam dunk,” but “the immigration hardliners who have clearly dominated the president’s immigration policy have not budged.”
The Trump administration faces various legal challenges to those plans, so it remains unclear what the future of the TPS program will be. Extending it to Venezuelans would protect about 200,000 Venezuelan citizens in the U.S. from deportation, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.
Earlier this year, the State Department was considering using a lesser-known authority, Deferred Enforced Departure, which similarly protects recipients from deportation and allows them to get work permits, a senior administration official said. But people familiar with those discussions said talks stalled over resistance to including relief for exiles in the Venezuela strategy, which has been centered around sanctions to put maximum pressure on the Maduro regime. A spokesperson for the State Department declined to comment on the status of those internal discussions.
Florida Republicans and former administration officials argue it would have been wise for Trump to grant TPS for Venezuelans early in his term as a way to disarm Democrats, who have been vocal in pushing for it going into the November election. Now, they say, it might be too late, as a last-minute offering to Venezuelans would be seen as transparently political.
“There’s always been an obvious and clear political advantage for this administration in doing TPS toward Venezuela, as it would play well in Florida and take away a big talking point from Democrats as far as 2020 Florida politics go,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior director at the National Security Council in the Trump administration.
Trump’s lack of movement on the issue has been seized by former Vice President Joe Biden as a major talking point as he tries to court Latinos in South Florida. About 17 percent of Florida’s registered voters are Hispanic; more than 40 percent of the state’s Hispanic voters live in Miami-Dade County. More than 200,000 Venezuelans live in Florida, according to a Pew Research Center analysis, with most based in South Florida and less than half of them registered to vote.
Republicans and Democrats have actively sought to win the Venezuelan American vote in recent years, with the Trump administration making it a central issue. While Venezuelan American voters alone do not have large numbers, strong policy against Venezuela’s socialist regime is widely seen as an additional way to garner the support of Cuban Americans, who historically have turned out in high numbers for Republicans.
“Biden has pledged to extend TPS to Venezuelans because it’s the right thing to do,” said Juan Gonzalez, a former adviser to Biden on Latin America. “And really, it would be an easy political win for Trump to do this or have done this, but he hasn’t.”
Last year, the Democrat-led House passed a bipartisan bill to grant TPS to Venezuelans. But the legislation was held up in the GOP-controlled Senate, despite support from Trump ally Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
“While we have Trump in office and Republicans supporting Trump in the Senate, we are not going to see any relief for Venezuelans that are living here or for other immigrants that have come here fleeing violent regimes,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who is facing a competitive race against Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Gimenez has also previously expressed support for granting TPS to Venezuelans, but has a long history of obeying Trump’s orders on immigration.
One Democratic aide acknowledged that one of the hang-ups about granting TPS to Venezuelans is that “even though it has a T, it rarely is a T” — temporary. Eligible recipients from Honduras, for example, have been granted the status since 1998, after Hurricane Mitch. Haitians have had access to TPS since the earthquake in 2010.
The Trump administration has shown little appetite to extend the program to Venezuelans, who face extreme poverty, food and medicine shortages and government repression back home. Earlier this month, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in an interview with the Miami Herald called on other countries in Latin America to help Venezuelan exiles.
“If we could get democracy back to Venezuela, you would not have these flows of asylum seekers,” O’Brien said ahead of a visit to South Florida to talk up the administration’s Americas strategy before a trip to Colombia and Panama. “It cannot just be that if there is a problem in a nation, the answer is to go to the United States. Other great countries in the hemisphere must also be a destination.”
However, of the estimated 5 million Venezuelans displaced due to the country’s political and humanitarian crisis, the vast majority have remained in Latin America. About 1.8 million Venezuelans are currently in Colombia, while hundreds of thousands are also being hosted by Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil.
Meanwhile, Trump is continuing to tout his administration’s aggressive approach to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela as he rallies Hispanic voters in Florida.
Last month, the president visited the U.S. Southern Command and held a Venezuela roundtable in Doral, Fla., where he made no mention of legal status of Venezuelans. However, O’Brien praised the president during the visit for his commitment to ensuring “the unfettered flow of humanitarian aid to those same people that are suffering.”
And Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to visit South Florida last week to talk about Cuba and Venezuela, but the trip was postponed with plans to reschedule it “in the near future,” according to Pence’s office.
“It’s very surprising to me that they keep showing up to Miami empty-handed,” Cutz said. “At this point, I find it unlikely they’ll do it. But if they get desperate in October, this is really low-hanging fruit.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.