At Least 4,000 Venezuelans In Charlotte Area Now Eligible For Temporary Protected Status
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After earning his degree in industrial engineering, José Miguel González led a successful career as an engineering consultant for one of Venezuela’s state-owned cement enterprises. His life changed when company executives learned he supported the opposition against then-President Hugo Chávez.
“You’re either with them, or you’re not,” González said. “And if you don’t support them, you’re the enemy.”
He was fired, so he took his skills to the private sector, where he expected there would be less government interference. But every place he worked fired him when they learned he was actively protesting first Chávez and then his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
“I felt the need to speak up because I didn’t believe in the way our country was being run," González said. "But every time you do it, you’re singled out in Venezuela.”
“La gota que derramó el vaso” — or “the last straw” — was an attack in spring 2016, González said. One day, he was bringing water over to fellow opposition members who were collecting signatures for an election referendum in his hometown. They were followed and attacked by members of the Colectivos, a pro-Maduro militia group. Rocks and glass shards were thrown at them.
González was bruised and cut but had no life-threatening injuries — though he thinks things could have easily turned out differently.
“What if a rock had hit my head?” he said, fighting back tears. “What if I hadn’t gotten away?”
González and his wife, Carla, fearful for their lives, flew out of the country just months later with whatever they could fit into a suitcase. They had to pretend the trip was for leisure to avoid being arrested.
“It was so painful leaving our country and getting on that plane,” González said, again choking up. “I couldn’t believe I was leaving my mother behind and that future we once thought possible.”
González and his wife arrived in Belmont, just west of Charlotte. They lived with Carla’s brother until they got on their feet. González is now an assembly worker at a power tools manufacturing plant in Fort Mill, South Carolina, and has nearly 2-year-old son.
“Our baby became our hope, our strength to move forward here in the United States,” he said. “(It is) a place where we can give him what we couldn’t in our own country.”
U.S. Census Bureau data show there are more than 300,000 Venezuelan migrants living in the United States. Nearly 4,000 of them live in the Charlotte metropolitan area.
The Biden administration announced in March temporary protected status for Venezuelans living in the United States. The designation, often shortened to TPS, protects migrants from Venezuela and 10 other countries from deportation and allows them to stay and work in the country.
For Venezuelans, this protection lasts 18 months. The Department of Homeland Security can extend it if a country is still deemed to be unstable.
Allowing Venezuelans to apply for temporary protected status is a big deal, says UNC Charlotte Latin American studies professor Greg Weeks.
“It's big because the humanitarian crisis of Venezuelan refugees has become so dire,” Weeks said. “The Trump administration famously was hostile to migrants from pretty much anywhere. This shift provides a lot of relief.”
Temporary protected status is intended to protect immigrants from countries deemed unsafe because of civil unrest, violence or natural disasters. Widespread hunger, threats from non-state armed groups and crumbling infrastructure are a few reasons why the White House granted Venezuelans the status.
Maduro inherited the late Chavez’s faltering economy in 2013. Chavez’s strict price controls led to shortages of basic goods and inflation, and in turn, violence and civil unrest. Weeks says that wasn’t all.
“Under Maduro, the corruption, the mismanagement of the oil industry, the hydroelectric industry, and other aspects of the economy gradually get worse,” he said. “So, people in the country are hurting and many start leaving.”
Venezuela’s mass migration is often characterized as a brain drain. Many who fled were predominantly middle and upper-class Venezuelans. And the Migration Policy Institute finds Venezuelan adults in the U.S. have higher levels of education than most foreign and U.S.-born adults.
Weeks says this brain drain is similar to the wave of Cubans fleeing to the U.S. in the 1960s.
“It was a similar situation where they left oftentimes without being able to bring their belongings," Weeks said. "They lost their property. They didn't have very much money. They had to start over in the United States, often with jobs that were far below what they were educated to do or trained to do.”
González for example, has a degree in industrial engineering but works in a manufacturing plant. He’s met others at work just like him.
“In the assembly line, I met a woman who told me, 'I’m actually a doctor,'" González said. "I said, 'What? For how long?' And she said, 'I worked in the medical field for more than 35 years, but I don’t speak English and I have to make a living somehow.'"
Weeks said that the Biden administration’s decision to give Venezuelans temporary protected status is also a political strategy. He says it puts pressure on Maduro to admit the country is in a crisis and accept aid.
Eligible Venezuelans will now have to decide whether they want to keep their asylum status, apply for temporary protected status or use both. Biden has proposed a plan that would give all those with temporary protected status a path to citizenship. González says the simple fact of having options is a relief.