Lionel Ortega had worked as an engineer for nearly 40 years for the Venezuelan state oil company when he walked off the job last October, defying authorities who demanded he stay and oversee repairs to the crumbling infrastructure that is choking off the lifeblood of the country’s beleaguered government.
“We are in a crisis in Venezuela,” Ortega told the welders he oversaw. “If you need to stay, you should stay.”
Men working for the government of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro got to Ortega’s home before he could. They beat up his wife and children and ransacked his house before burning it to the ground, Ortega said in a recent interview at a shelter in the hills of Tijuana.
“They are asking for you,” Ortega’s wife told him. “Don’t come home.”
Ortega fled north, joining a wave of Venezuelans seeking asylum elsewhere in the hemisphere. Nearly 3.9 million people have fled Venezuela, with millions more expected to follow this year, according to William Spindler, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency.
As a result, Venezuela has overtaken China to become the No. 1 country of origin for those claiming asylum in the U.S. upon arrival or shortly after, with nearly 30,000 Venezuelans applying for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2018. Nearly one-third of claims filed with the agency come from Venezuelans, the most of any country by far, according to the latest data.
That has created a dilemma for the Trump administration in which its foreign policy, which considers Maduro’s government an oppressive dictatorship, is colliding with its immigration policy, which has sought aggressively to hold down the number of people admitted to the country through asylum.
President Trump has railed against asylum applicants, saying that many are engaging in a “hoax” and a “big, fat con job.” Many Central American asylum seekers, who are Trump’s primary target, fall into a different category than the Venezuelans. But because of the foreign policy focus on Venezuela, the asylum seekers from that country pose a more direct challenge to the administration’s anti-immigration agenda.
Only about 2% of those granted asylum in the U.S. are Venezuelan, according to a Homeland Security report in March. While approval rates appear to be increasing, about 50% of Venezuelan asylum claims are denied, on average. Those denied asylum are at risk of deportation back to their home country.
The administration has resisted a bipartisan push — including from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an avowed hawk on Venezuela — to grant Venezuelans the right to stay in the U.S. under so-called temporary protected status. That program, designed to deal with people fleeing natural disasters or civil unrest, offers recipients protection from removal and the right to work legally in the U.S. But administration officials have sought to dismantle the program as part of their wider efforts to reduce immigration.
“There’s obviously a huge contradiction between the way the U.S. government characterizes the Venezuelan regime and the refusal to have a more flexible immigration policy toward Venezuelans,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
In fact, the Trump administration has stepped up deportations of Venezuelans.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 336 Venezuelans last year, far fewer than the tens of thousands of Central Americans being removed each year, but a 35% increase over the year prior.
“Governments should not forcibly send Venezuelans back,” said Spindler, not referring directly to the U.S.
Trump’s National Security Council directed queries on temporary protected status and other potential safeguards for Venezuelans to the Homeland Security Department.
“U.S. policy goals are focused on transformation in Venezuela and getting that country back on the road to stability for the benefit of all Venezuelans,” a senior administration official said in a statement.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has pushed for granting temporary status to Venezuelans, said Trump’s policy is counterproductive.
“Blocking Venezuelan refugees from seeking safe haven and forcing them to return home at this very dangerous time plays right into Maduro’s hands,” Durbin said.
The economic implosion of Venezuela, whose vast oil resources once helped make it South America’s wealthiest country, is nearly unprecedented in modern history outside a war zone.
The world’s highest inflation rate, scarcity of food and basic services, skyrocketing homicides, and corruption and persecution from Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime have precipitated one of the largest and fastest mass migrations to hit the Western Hemisphere.
Trump has responded with crippling sanctions intended to force Maduro to step down and hand over power to Juan Guaido, the opposition leader whom the United States and many other Western Hemisphere nations recognize as interim president. American officials have threatened U.S. military intervention and called on the Venezuelan people to help overthrow Maduro’s regime, though Guaido has failed to mobilize such a popular uprising.
“All of Venezuelans want the U.S. military to intervene in Venezuela,” said Ortega, the asylum seeker in Tijuana. “We feel very grateful for everything Trump is doing.”
But the sanctions, particularly on Venezuela’s state oil company, where Ortega worked, also have exacerbated the country’s collapse, experts say. The penalties have made it tougher for Venezuela to import food and medication, and are accelerating the exodus, said Adam Isacson, a defense expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Looking primarily at the rapidly declining oil sector, the Brookings Institution estimated that more than 5 million more Venezuelans could flee in the near future, rivaling the Syrian refugee crisis.
Oil sanctions against Venezuela have been on the table for many years, said Lisa Viscidi, an energy specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, but officials considered them a “nuclear option” because of the likelihood they would worsen the humanitarian situation.
“That was a risk they were willing to take,” Viscidi said of the Trump administration. “They were calculating that ultimately was the only way to get Maduro to fall.”
For the last 20 years, with rare exception, China has been the No.1 country of origin for those claiming asylum upon arriving legally in the U.S.
As recently as 2013, Venezuelans didn’t even rank in the top 10. Today, China and Guatemala, the next two countries after Venezuela, each account for only about 10% of such asylum applications.
The vast majority of Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries, with some 1.2 million in Colombia.
The region’s generosity, however, is showing signs of strain, with several South American countries enacting stricter requirements for Venezuelan refugees. Reports of xenophobia, extortion, and attacks from local gangs, armed groups and the general public, are common, according to Spindler, the U.N. spokesman.
“There are protection issues for many Venezuelans in Colombia,” he said.
Mexico has also seen a dramatic increase in Venezuelans seeking asylum there. Most are approved.
While many Venezuelans still fly to the United States, particularly those with more money and family here, an increasing number of Venezuelan asylum seekers are likely to show up in Tijuana and present themselves at the U.S. border with thousands of others, like Ortega.
He recounted his escape last month at a table at a migrant shelter crowded with asylum seekers from around the world, convinced that U.S. authorities grant most Venezuelans political asylum.
He expressed surprise that Trump was not giving Venezuelans special protection in the U.S., saying it was too dangerous for him to stay in Colombia, where he first fled, or even in Mexico.
“Trump said the U.S. government is going to help the Venezuelan people, so I don’t know how they can say they don’t want to give this benefit to Venezuelans,” he said.
“They know the crisis in Venezuela, cases like mine,” he added. “The Maduro government considers me a traitor. I can’t go back because I will be killed.”