Trump Goes After Venezuelan Socialism but Doesn't Skip a Beat Deporting Venezuelans

President Donald Trump walks with Juan Guaidó, interim president of Venezuela, at the White House February 5.
President Donald Trump walks with Juan Guaidó, interim president of Venezuela, at the White House February 5. Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty
Known for his love of fast food and desserts, President Donald Trump continues to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to the issue of Venezuela. During his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Trump engaged in all kinds of theatrics — including staging a military family reunion and awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to controversial conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh — but he made sure to save space to call out Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro, whom Trump described as an illegitimate ruler and a tyrant.

"We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom, and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair," Trump said. "Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country... Tonight we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country."

If you're getting a strong sense of déjà vu, it's not just you. Rewind to Trump's State of the Union speech last year, and you'll find the same theme: Venezuela used as a prop to attack the supposed specter of socialism descending upon the United States, while the plight of real Venezuelans in America is ignored. Indeed, beyond a surprise appearance by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, fresh from a weekend rally in Miami, there was little difference between 2019 and 2020.  For all of Trump's professions of solidarity with the people of Venezuela in both speeches, you'd be hard-pressed to find any mention of efforts to accommodate Venezuelans migrants in the United States. That's because there aren't any efforts.

Of the estimated 5 million refugees who have fled Venezuela's economic and political collapse, tens of thousands have sought refuge stateside each year since 2016. But rather than make things easier for fleeing Venezuelans, the Trump administration has tightened asylum standards. The result? Thousands of Venezuelans now find themselves staring down deportation. More than 24,000 Venezuelans were facing removal from the United States at the end of 2019, according to immigration court data obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Here's something else you won't hear in Trump's State of the Union speeches: If the president wanted to, his administration could protect every last Venezuelan here from deportation, and he could do it tomorrow. Trump's executive power allows him to issue Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a legal protection that allows foreigners who cannot return to their home countries because of dangerous conditions to legally reside and work in the United States. Since the program's creation in 1990, both Republican and Democratic presidents have issued TPS designations to various nationalities with little controversy.

The Trump administration, for its part, has paid plenty of lip service to the prospect of helping fleeing Venezuelans but has refused to stop sending them back home. Last year, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams finally gave up the game, admitting it was unlikely Trump would ever grant TPS to Venezuelans.

Desperate for some sort of action, Venezuelan advocates turned to Congress in hopes that bipartisan legislation would be enough to persuade the White House. That trail has gone cold too. A TPS bill for Venezuelans passed the House last year but failed in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Conditions on the ground in South America have only grown worse since Trump's last State of the Union Address. Maduro remains fully entrenched in power, presiding comfortably over the South American nation's military and broken legislative and judicial systems, despite economic sanctions from the U.S. government. As millions of Venezuelan refugees flee to neighboring Latin American countries, the Trump administration has led a campaign to slash their numbers allowed into the United States from the 110,000-person ceiling set by the Obama administration in 2017 to a yearly limit of 18,000 in 2020. 

Florida politicians such as Sen. Marco Rubio have tried to cover for the president's dissonance on Venezuela by stressing that the White House remains firm in its support of Venezuelans and by falsely claiming it's not possible for Venezuelans to be deported. Yet nearly 600 Venezuelans have been ordered deported since October 2019, according to TRAC.

Trump continues to champion the Venezuela issue in his speeches because it's a rhetorical win-win that requires no compromise from his administration. The White House can at once appear sympathetic to Venezuelans while maintaining its continued assault on immigrants in the States. The figure of Maduro is both bogeyman and rhetorical cudgel against what Trump views as socialism spreading in the United States. Unfortunately, until the Republican Party starts calling out the president on his petty lip service, things will likely remain the same. 
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.