The Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis is the second largest migration crisis after Syria going on right now globally, and the largest in the recent history of the Americas. Unfortunately, it will soon surpass that of Syria in terms of the number of forcibly displaced people. We know that 80% of the 5 million who have been recently displaced are in South American countries. In the United States, however, we’re seeing the beginning of a growing diaspora that may count around 484,000 Venezuelan-Americans, and the new 2020 census will probably show us an increase in that number, as more Venezuelans have settled in this country.
While many have regularized their status in the United States via work or family visas (among other options), there’s a greater number of Venezuelans arriving in the U.S. to request political asylum.
Political asylum in the United States is granted under very specific conditions, and the direct threat of persecution is its basis. Many Venezuelans, however, assume that because the country is currently in a humanitarian crisis and under an authoritarian regime coexisting with a legitimately recognized caretaker government, their political asylum is almost guaranteed.
This isn’t the case.
That’s why I talked to Venezuelan-American attorney Marcia Guevara, who practices law in NY, to help us clarify the political asylum processes and other legal pathways to regularization for recent arrivals of Venezuelans to the U.S.
What are some of the legal pathways for Venezuelans to legalize their status in the United States? And what conditions are required for them to work? Is asylum an option?
There are many legal pathways available to Venezuelans who wish to legalize their status in the United States. Some of them became U.S. citizens after many years and they’re now petitioning for their parents and siblings. Others came here under a student visa and got their permanent residence through the adjustment of status based on marriages to U.S. citizens. We have a large number of people who came with an O visa because of their talents and, most recently, we had a big influx of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States.
Asylum is a protection offered to people who have been persecuted in the past, or could be persecuted in the future, because of their race, membership of a particular social group, political opinion, nationality or religion. Venezuelans need to understand that being a Venezuelan doesn’t automatically make them eligible for asylum. They need to prove that they cannot return to the country of origin because of persecution, instead of a threat of persecution. It’s very difficult to get asylum and people should always consult with an immigration attorney to see if they’re eligible before filing the application. If the asylum office doesn’t grant asylum and the applicant is in the U.S. without status, the applicant will be referred to Immigration Court. The process can take a number of years and it could be expensive and very stressful.
It’s very difficult to get asylum and people should always consult with an immigration attorney to see if they’re eligible before filing the application.
What are some of the main challenges that Venezuelans seeking to legalize their status in the United States face?
Venezuelans usually come with limited financial resources. This creates severe difficulties for them to pay the legal services of an attorney. Some don’t speak English, and this makes it very hard for them to understand the American legal system.
Since Venezuelans are learning how to migrate, they usually have problems adjusting. The biggest challenge is the complicated process to obtain a Venezuelan passport and personal documents like birth, divorce or marriage certificates. Venezuelans report that it’s very difficult to obtain documents required to apply to U.S. visas, leaving most of them with no other option than to stay in Venezuela. We often see clients who apply for asylum but their spouses and children are in Venezuela because they couldn’t obtain a passport.
What are the most common mistakes that Venezuelans make in the process of obtaining a legal status in the U.S.?
There are at least four common mistakes:
- Most Venezuelans are seeking legal advice from paralegals instead of attorneys. Very often, I hear Venezuelans telling me that they ended up in removal proceedings because of a notary’s bad advice. They don’t understand that Venezuelan attorneys can’t practice in the United States without being allowed to practice. They also don’t understand that a notary can’t give legal advice. In Venezuela, a notary must be an attorney, but anyone who passes the Notary State Exam and complies with state requirements in the U.S., can be a notary. This can be confusing for Venezuelans. Many have lost time and money by falling prey to paralegals who offer what they can’t deliver.
- Venezuelans also prefer to prepare their visa applications with notaries because they usually charge low fees and tell clients whatever they want to hear. Some may think that they’re saving money, but this mistake will cost not just more money and time, but also any possibility of success with the asylum process.
- The other common mistake is that Venezuelans don’t understand that each case is unique, and that whatever worked for their friends may not apply to them. Whenever I ask why they applied for the wrong type of visa, they say that their friends did it and they thought they may get the same results.
- Finally, Venezuelans are usually seeking legal representation when it’s too late. Something very common are phone calls from Venezuelans who lost their cases and need an attorney to appeal. Appeals are usually time-sensitive and Venezuelan clients call attorneys when they’re approaching the deadline. It’s important to understand that attorneys need enough time to prepare appeals and can’t represent you if you call them just before the deadline.
What recommendations can we make to Venezuelans thinking of the United States as their country of destination?
First, if the person is in Venezuela, I would recommend consulting with an immigration attorney before traveling to America. There are a lot of myths in Venezuela and people should know the truth before migrating, it’s best they connect with immigration attorneys who can answer questions online.
Second, Venezuelans can search all their immigration-related questions on this website, containing all the forms and instructions to apply for visas and asylum.
Third, people should have all their documents with them. It’s very hard to request birth certificates in Venezuela from here. Understand the system where you are intending to live, the U.S. Immigration Law is a very complex area of law and is constantly changing.
And never seek legal advice from notaries or paralegals, just look for licensed attorneys.
* Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of the Organization of American States (OAS).
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