New data shows Venezuelans are leading asylum requests to the United States for the first time, as the middle class in the country are fleeing the crashing, oil-dependent economy.
The U.S. government's Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that 18,155 Venezuelans submitted asylum requests last year, a 150 percent increase over 2015 and six times the level seen in 2014.
Data showed China in second place, with 17,745 requests coming from the country’s citizens.
In 2014 a large number of Venezuelans sought asylum following months of protests seeking to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
A large surge in applicants took place since late 2015 after the opposition took control of congress in a landslide election, giving hope to many that it could disrupt 17 years of socialist rule. Instead of reaching out to his opponents, Maduro retrenched and Venezuelans began to uproot as triple-digit inflation pulverized salaries and widespread food and medicine shortages made life unbearable for many.
A large number of the asylum seekers are middle-class Venezuelans who don’t qualify for refugee status reserved for those seeking to escape political persecution, according to Julio Henriquez, director of the Boston-based nonprofit Refugee Freedom Program.
"The pace at which requests are increasing is alarming," said Henriquez, whose group obtained the still-unpublished data in a Feb. 8 meeting between U.S. officials and immigration lawyers. "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."
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s estimate of visa overstays, Venezuela became one of the top 10 countries whose citizens overstayed their U.S. visas during the fiscal year in 2015.
Venezuelans seeking U.S. asylum represent a small share of the overall Venezuelan immigrant population, some of whom have made their home in the U.S. for decades.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.