After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sent two planes of mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, advertising executive Max Lefeld slammed the move as a political stunt.
“It’s like me taking my trash out and just driving to different areas where I live and just throwing my trash there," said Lefeld, a Venezuelan American who's a founding member of the Casa Venezuela Dallas foundation, which helps recent refugees.
But in an Instagram post from Miami-based EVTV, focused on Venezuelan news, a video of the migrants getting off the plane in Massachusetts elicited mostly support, with many emojis of clapping hands.
The shuffling of asylum-seekers from the U.S. border to Democratic states by DeSantis and Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, both Republicans, is intensifying debate among U.S. Venezuelans and sharpening their divisions over rising arrivals of people from their country.
The divisions largely fall along political lines, with Venezuelan Republicans defending DeSantis and Democrats blasting the move.
Patricia Andrade, who has been helping recently arrived Venezuelans for over seven years through her nonprofit, Raíces Venezolanas, in Miami, said she feels bad for the Venezuelans who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard but added DeSantis was trying to bring attention to a problem that “the Biden administration does not want to take on.”
Andrade said many of the Venezuelans she helps with donations of food and household items say they came with the understanding that the U.S. government would give them food and housing.
“But what I am seeing is that many of the Venezuelans who come end up in the streets,” she said.
She said the most recent wave of Venezuelans coming to the U.S. have polarized the community, with some believing that some of the migrants are “delinquents” and are coming to the U.S. as an “adventure” rather than a planned move.
“If the U.S. government is going to allow them in they should screen them for criminal background and have infrastructure in place to offer them shelter and food,” she said.
'An incredible divide'
In Texas, Lefeld said his foundation's Facebook page has comments from people saying they won’t help Venezuelans from the Chavista party — referring to the late Venezuelan socialist president, Hugo Chavez — or that the latest arrivals were part of the current leftist government of President Nicolás Maduro.
“My line of criticism to my fellow countrymen here is that it’s people that made it, just like them, but they are walking and they don’t have luggage and we flew,” said Lefeld, the founder of the advertising firm Co.Jones. “People kind of forget how they came here.”
“There is an incredible divide that has permeated from the divide we see in American politics,” he said.
José Antonio Colina is a former Venezuelan army lieutenant who now heads Veppex, a Venezuelan exile organization in Miami.
Colina does not support what DeSantis did, which is "not consistent with what DeSantis has expressed in the past." He called it a "political stunt."
But, he said that prior to DeSantis' actions, his organization as well as other groups had expressed concerns to the Department of Homeland Security that among those being released in the U.S. were former members of Maduro’s paramilitary group and former officials in the police force, as well as individuals who had been released from prison.
“It’s dangerous for those who are seeking political asylum and it’s a danger for U.S. national security,” Colina said.
He said the Venezuelan community is “confused” and that “the real problem is that there is massive migration of Venezuelans through the border and DHS is not capable of controlling it or dealing with it properly.”
Since 2014, over 6.8 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled to other countries, causing one of the largest refugee crises in the world. In recent months, migration has increased dramatically after slowing down following the Covid-19 pandemic.
The South American country was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous, with the world’s largest oil reserves. Many Venezuelans used to travel to the U.S. for vacation and shopping.
Everything changed after the late President Hugo Chavez took office in 1999. Poor planning under his socialist government caused the economy to worsen. Under his successor, Nicolás Maduro, the economy went into free fall causing shortages in food and medicine while violence and crime flourished.
With the pandemic lockdowns migration slowed, as travel became more difficult and economic opportunities dried up. Venezuela’s government made reforms to slow the economic crisis. Venezuelans began returning to their homeland at the height of the pandemic, but the trend has reversed since.
Venezuelan migrants often cross the perilous Darien Gap in the Colombia-Panama border and then make their way north across Central America.
After they request asylum and are released many make their way to Florida, home to the largest Venezuelan community in the U.S.
Former President Donald Trump courted Venezuelan American voters with his “anti-communism” message throughout his four years in office. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials made multiple trips to Florida to make policy speeches that involved Venezuela and met with community leaders. A majority of Venezuelan voters cast a ballot for Trump and other Republicans in 2020.
DeSantis has also done his share of outreach to Venezuelans and his anti-socialism messaging has resonated with them. Now many Venezuelans are divided, with Republicans defending DeSantis’ move to send Venezuelans to Martha’s Vineyard and Democrats condemning it.
'Throwing them away'
Carla Montilla, a Venezuelan American graduate student in Washington, D.C., criticized DeSantis, saying he and other Florida politicians always talk about communist countries and say they stand with the people of those countries.
"These are empty political talking points," said Montilla, who's originally from Doral, Florida, where many Venezuelan Americans live. "These victims of communism are here now and they are just throwing them away," she said.
Montilla said she is a Democrat but has family members who are Republicans "who have found this behavior disgusting."