Venezuelan humanitarian crisis spills into South Florida's immigration courts

Attorneys warn of immigration court backlog due to asylum requests increase

MIAMI – Amid a shortage of medicine and food, President Nicolas Maduro was asking his supporters to march in support of his administration on Wednesday. Maduro's opposition was aiming for one of the largest marches to protest his government's repression and lack of security. 

Maduro's opponents were pressing for elections. Thousands have responded to calls for action since Venezuela's Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of power and later reversed it in March. A government agency banned Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader, from seeking office for 15 years. 

Meanwhile, Maduro was empowering armed civilian militias. During a speech this week, he said he wanted "a gun for every militiaman" and added that now is the time for Venezuelans to decide if they are "with the homeland" or against it.  

"I don't know how my country will be tomorrow morning," Omaira Santiago said about the lack of economic and political stability in Venezuela. 

Santiago is among those who don't want to get caught up in the middle. She said she recently left her beloved country after facing death threats. And she is among the growing number of Venezuelans who are seeking political asylum in the United States. 

Coral Gables immigration attorney Stephanie Green, who has volunteered for the non-profit CASA, said she is concerned about the large number of Venezuelans who are misinformed about the qualifications needed to qualify for asylum.

Allegations of death threats, sickness and an unstable economy back home are not enough to make a case.  Applicants must demonstrate a "credible fear" of returning home due to political or religious persecution, or for belonging to a group or a race. 

"If your asylum is not a strong asylum, you will end up with an order of deportation and you will be deported from the United States," Green said. 

Immigration authorities reported that 18,155 Venezuelans submitted asylum requests last year, a 150 percent increase over 2015. There were 2,334 requests in December alone. For the first time in years, Chinese placed second with 17,745 requests. 

"It's not just worrisome that so many people are escaping the terrible situation in Venezuela, but also that the practice of sending asylum-seekers with poor advice and false proof is proliferating," Julio Henriquez, the director of the Refugee Freedom Program, said in February, after releasing the data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

The Venezuelan exodus began in 1998, when President Hugo Chavez was elected with a socialist agenda and the wealthy fled. With the country's oil company strapped for cash, the diaspora has hit every social class. It has separated families and sent professionals to precarious jobs in South Florida. 

They leave behind relatives who are the victims of political persecution and systematic torture. On Thursday, agents detained 22-year-old twin brothers, Francisco Jose Sanchez and Francisco Alejandro Sanchez. Their lawyer told Reuters that one of them spent three days handcuffed to a pipe and received psychological torture. 

Attorneys in South Florida said the Venezuelans' plight was having an effect on immigration courts in South Florida. The backlog on cases is so large that many of the new asylum cases including Santiago's case could take as many as four years to be heard in court. 

The numbers alarmed U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson who said on Tuesday that President Donald Trump's administration needs to be more aggressive with economic sanctions. 

About the Authors:

Christian De La Rosa joined Local 10 News in April 2017 after spending time as a reporter and anchor in Atlanta, San Diego, Orlando and Panama City Beach.

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.