Democrats press Trump to give Venezuelans in US reprieve from deportation

Just hours apart on Monday, Democrats and Republicans highlighted the plight of Venezuelans, whose homeland continues to reel from political and economic chaos.

The focus on the deteriorating South American country and, significantly, Venezuelans who are in the U.S., is a nod to a community that increasingly is becoming an important voting bloc.

With President Donald Trump and other Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida out front with tough rhetoric and policies aimed at weakening the socialist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Democrats have been criticized for dragging their feet as anti-government protesters are jailed or even killed.

In a telephone press conference Monday, Florida congressional Democrats called on Trump to allow Venezuelans in the U.S. to be eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a renewable humanitarian program that spares foreign nationals from deportation and allows them to work here if they are from a country deemed unsafe to return. Congress created TPS in 1990.

Trump was delivering a speech in Miami on Monday afternoon at Florida International University about Venezuela’s spiraling condition under Maduro. The U.S. has recognized Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela's National Assembly, as president of Venezuela. Dozens of other countries have done so, as well, alleging that Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent and that other government-stacked institutions such as the supreme court have no legal authority.

PHOTOS EMERGE SHOWING VENEZUELA'S 'DEATH SQUAD' WITH LIFELESS BODIES

Over the weekend, Rubio visited a border staging point for U.S. aid to Venezuela and warned soldiers loyal to Maduro that it will be a “crime against humanity” if they block entry of the goods that are being channeled through Maduro’s rivals.

Maduro’s policies have helped further drive Venezuela – once one of Latin America’s most stable democracies – into social, political and economic chaos. More than two million Venezuelans have left the country, and many more are expected to continue the exodus.

Florida has the largest Venezuelan community in the U.S. The community’s political activism for a change in Venezuela’s leadership, combined with the state’s importance in national elections, has put the exiles and their issues in the spotlight.

“The state of Florida is the home to thousands of Venezuelans, many are facing deportation to a country that has literally falling apart,” said Rep. Donna Shalala. “It’s very important that TPS be extended to that community. I have challenged the president not to come to South Florida without announcing the extension of TPS.

“We supported much of this administration for its political and economic sanctions,” Shalala said. “It is very important that we keep the Venezuelans that are here living in our community.”

She said Democrats would continue to push for TPS.

Rep. Ted Deutch said Venezuela cannot absorb the return of the millions who had left.

“That we would send these hard-working people back to a country in crisis is outrageous,” Deutch said. “Ten percent of the Venezuelan population has fled but this administration has denied entry for asylum to the United States and that’s not right, that’s not who we are as Americans, and I’m proud of my colleagues for assuring TPS for Venezuelans.”

Many Venezuelans in the U.S. have criticized some Democrats for expressing opposition to U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and opposition to efforts to get Maduro out of power.

At a congressional hearing on Venezuela last week, Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed opposition to suggestions by Trump about going into Venezuela militarily, as well as to sanctions on the state-run oil company, PDVSA, according to published reports.

“I appreciate the need to squeeze Maduro,” Engel said. “But the White House must think through the potential repercussions that these sanctions could have on the Venezuelan people if Maduro does not leave office in the coming weeks.”

Venezuelans in the U.S. have been applying for political asylum in growing numbers in recent years. But obtaining political asylum – which requires demonstrating a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group – has become more difficult as the Trump administration vowed to tighten the program.

Trump has taken aim at TPS, moving to end it for immigrants from such countries as Nicaragua and El Salvador, among other places. Last year, a federal judge in California blocked the administration from ending TPS. The administration appealed the ruling.

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By most accounts, Venezuela is a country in freefall. It has the highest murder rate in the world – 81 per 100,000 residents. Inflation has topped one million percent. Everything ranging from toilet paper to medicine is scarce.

And it's becoming increasingly perilous for those in the country to criticize the government. In a pattern that took hold with the late president, Hugo Chavez, many prominent critics of the Maduro administration have been arrested and are languishing in jail.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.