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After Leila Calderón’s nephew was accused of plotting to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and subsequently arrested, she took to the streets to protest.
“Innocent people like my nephew become the real victims of this regime and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.
It wasn’t long, however, until she became a target herself.
“They singled me out; they said that I was paying to be there and that I was paying to show up,” said Calderón.
In July 2016, she fled her home country for the United States with her husband and her nine-year-old son.
Calderón was one of several Venezuelans who joined lawmakers and advocates in a teleconference to ask the Trump administration to give Temporary Protected Status or TPS to Venezuelans like her. TPS is a form of humanitarian relief enacted through the Immigration Act of 1990, which gives immigrants from certain countries that have gone through war or natural disasters short-term legal standing to live and work in the U.S.
For the past few years, Venezuelans have been escaping political chaos, hyperinflation and shortages in food and medicine. More than 4 million Venezuelans have fled their country, according to the United Nations — the largest exodus in the recent history of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Senate Republicans blocked a vote last month on whether to grant TPS to Venezuelans in the U.S. who face political and economic turmoil at home.
In response, a group of lawmakers and advocates are urging Congress to act on Venezuela and provide its fleeing citizens with relief from immediately returning to the dangerous conditions.
“We need to put tremendous pressure on the Senate and have some kind of a vote,” Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., said. “Something has to happen before the end of this year.”
Shalala described visiting hospitals in Venezuela and seeing women with high-risk pregnancies who had no access to prenatal care or proper nutrition.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “We need to move as quickly as possible.”
Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), said one of the biggest obstacles in acquiring TPS for Venezuelans is rampant misunderstanding of how such status works in President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Former Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said he liked TPS, but that he had to make sure no criminals used it,” Ramsey said. “He didn’t understand that there are six, 12, 18-month designations where people apply, pay a fee for the processing, submit to background checks. This isn’t a one-time designation, so that was very concerning.”
Lisa Parisio, an attorney at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), added that only approximately 50 percent of Venezuela asylum seekers in the United States have been approved, which shows the sheer number of people who could potentially benefit from TPS.
Calderón now lives with her son in New Jersey; her husband passed away in 2017. Her nephew remains in jail and her sister was arrested at one point for her connection to her son, though she’s since been released.
“We are advocating for liberation,” Calderón said. “I’m so afraid of going back. We will face death.”