Lawmakers Ask Bush to Give Temporary Legal Status to Venezuelans

Five Republican congressmen asked President Bush on Monday to provide temporary legal status to Venezuelans in the country illegally for what they contend is an increase in political persecutions under Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The five sent a letter to Bush asking him to order the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily stop deporting Venezuelans.

"We strongly believe that the Chavez government in Venezuela at this time is persecuting its citizens for their political views," wrote Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Connie Mack and Jerry Weller. Weller is from Illinois; the rest are from Florida.

The legislators asked that alternatively, Bush grant expedited asylum and work-permit requests to eligible Venezuelans, as was done for Nicaraguans who left their country after the leftist Sandinista government took power in the 1980s.

The proposal for Venezuelans would be similar to the temporary protected status given to Nicaraguans and Hondurans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and to Salvadorans following an earthquake in 2001.

The government has repeatedly extended the legal stay of citizens from those countries who were in the U.S. at the time of the disasters. Immigrants from Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, and Liberia also have the protected status.

The Venezuelan Congress recently gave Chavez special powers to decree laws for 18 months, and he has threatened to expropriate supermarkets, stores and other businesses caught hoarding food or speculating on prices following reports of more than 17 percent inflation. Chavez has nationalized Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, though analysts say the government has paid fair market prices for both.

Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Venezuelans living in the U.S. doubled to about 160,000, according to the U.S. Census. Nearly half live in Florida.

Another 400,000 Venezuelans came to the United States in 2005 on business and tourism visas. It is unclear how many stayed. About 50 percent of asylum applications are approved, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.