Rick Scott calls for Venezuelan immigrant protection as critics slam ‘empty words’

    Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Credit: www.flgov.com

    WASHINGTON — Florida Sen. Rick Scott reiterated his support Wednesday for granting undocumented Venezuelan immigrants temporary legal status to remain in the United States — but declined to say whether he would sign on to legislation that would provide that protection.

    “We need to take care of Venezuelans that are here,” he told the Florida Phoenix. “Look at the latest, the blackouts and things like that. It’s getting worse day after day. … I’ve been very supportive, and we’ve got to take care of them.”

    Yet, when asked whether he would support a bill that would grant Venezuelan nationals legal status to stay in the United States temporarily without fear of deportation, the freshman Republican demurred. “I haven’t seen that legislation,” he said.

    Scott’s GOP colleague in the Senate, Marco Rubio, first introduced the bill in December in response to the ongoing political, economic, and humanitarian crisis under the regime of Nicolás Maduro. But the measure did not garner enough support to become law before Congress adjourned.

    Rubio, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the legislation, reintroduced the bill two weeks ago along with several Democratic colleagues. “While Maduro’s narco-terrorist regime continues to commit senseless acts of violence against the Venezuelan people, it is clear that the conditions on the ground warrants granting temporary protected status to Venezuelan nationals residing in the U.S.,” he said in a statement.

    Charges of hypocrisy

    Scott’s legislative inaction has prompted charges of hypocrisy from Florida Democrats.

    “Rick Scott has had the opportunity to take real action and help Venezuelans here in Florida who are seeking asylum, but instead has merely offered empty words for political gain,” Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement.

    The Trump administration has taken steps to end TPS protections for nationals from several countries. But last week, Elliott Abrams, the U.S. envoy for Venezuela, testified that the administration was considering granting TPS for Venezuelans. In response, Scott issued a statement saying he strongly supports those efforts. “While I believe we need a long-term solution for the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, I believe we should immediately extend TPS for Venezuelans who came to the United States to escape Maduro’s regime. Too much is at stake for this to get caught up in bureaucracy.”

    On the same day of the hearing, Rubio and 23 Democratic senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to support TPS for Venezuelans. Scott’s name was not on the letter — prompting Rizzo to accuse him of not showing his “true colors” on the issue. “Once again, Rick Scott is saying one thing in public for political gain, while refusing to take actual action,” she said in a statement

    An early supporter of Trump, Scott told the Phoenix that he and the president have discussed granting TPS to Venezuelan nationals in the United States, but declined to reveal Trump’s response. Scott said he also thanked the president for his support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó and for organizing international support for him as the country’s new interim president — a message Scott said he also relayed to National Security Advisor John Bolton. “We’ve got to continue to look at everything we can,” Scott said.

    “Look, I’ve been very clear,” Scott said. “One, we need a secure border. Number two, we need to come up with a program to help our DACA kids” (a reference to immigrants who came to the United States as children). “We’ve educated them, they’ve grown up in my state, I’ve been very supportive of doing something there. And we have to have a permanent fix for TPS. On top of that, we need to take care of Venezuelans that are here.”

    A hot issue

    This issue is particularly hot in Florida, since so many South American immigrants are living here.  Florida is home to about 190,000 Venezuelan nationals, making this group the state’s sixth largest immigrant group, according to a 2017 survey from the the U.S. Census Bureau, the latest data available.

    And with the crisis in Venezuela, more immigrants are coming to the Sunshine State. Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokeswoman for the national Migration Policy Institute, said that of the roughly 61,000 new Venezuelan immigrants to the United States in 2017, nearly 24,000 went to Florida — more than to any other state.

    About 350,000 Venezuelans are now living live in the United States, nearly double the number in 2010, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. About 150,000 would qualify for temporary protections, according to the Venezuelan American National Bar Association.

    Florida lawmakers — from both parties and in both chambers — are increasingly vocal about their plight.

    As Rubio joins Democrats in leading the charge in the Senate, Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart and Democrat U.S. Rep. Darren Soto are doing so in the House. Diaz-Balart and Soto introduced companion legislation earlier this year. Eight Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation have signed on; none of state’s other 12 Republicans have joined them.

    House Democrats introduced separate legislation this week that would allow some immigrants with TPS status to apply for permanent legal status and protect undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from getting deported. Introduced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the legislation has support from a dozen Florida Democrats.  but none of the state’s Republicans.

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