The Hispanic Festival of Polk County takes place each year along the east shore of Lake Mirror.

Venezuelans living in Lakeland reacted with a mix of emotions to the federal government’s recent decision to extend temporary protected status in the U.S. for another 18 months due to “increased instability and lack of safety” in their home country.

The decision affects those who arrived in the U.S. before July 31. TPS protects beneficiaries from being deported and allows them to apply for a work permit. It does not offer them a pathway to citizenship. 

The federal government is also offering to renew TPS for Venezuelans who were granted the status in 2021, allowing them to stay in the country another 18 months without facing deportation. This is the second time TPS for Venezuela has been renewed since 2021. 

Local attorney’s clients ‘extremely grateful’

It is unclear exactly how many Venezuelans live in Lakeland. Back in 2018, it was estimated at least 700 Venezuelans were seeking refuge here, based on a referendum vote taken by members of the Association of Venezuelans in Lakeland. However, many more have come since then. The Facebook group “Venezolanos en Lakeland, FL” has more than 2,400 followers.

Lakeland immigration attorney Ivelisse De la Fe, with the law firm Lilly & Brown LLP, said she is currently representing 40 clients from Venezuela but has had numerous consultations in the last year. 

Ivelisse De la Fe

“My clients are very happy about the new redesignation; those newly eligible are extremely grateful,” said De la Fe, adding that notaries submit the majority of TPS applications. 

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas made the announcement on Sept. 20 citing “extraordinary and temporary conditions in Venezuela” that prevent individuals from safely returning. There are currently about 242,700 TPS beneficiaries under Venezuela’s existing TPS designation. Approximately 472,000 additional Venezuelans may be eligible under the redesignation of Venezuela.

The news came right on time for Maria Bastidas, 43, from Yaracuy, Venezuela, which is on the northern coast, about a four-hour drive to the capital, Caracas.

Venezuelan nurse Maria Bastidas came to live with her sister in Lakeland because it was “impossible to survive” on less than $1 a month. | Provided photo

Bastidas, whose sister lives in Lakeland, arrived on May 29 after she had applied and was approved for humanitarian parole, which is typically granted to noncitizens to temporarily enter the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons.

The Department of Homeland Security says the typical length of parole is a year. After that time frame, the person either has to leave the U.S. or have acquired a different immigration status. Parolees are sometimes granted temporary employment authorization. The decision to allow someone to enter is at the department’s discretion. 

Bastidas said registering for temporary protected status will allow her to request permission to return to Venezuela to visit her parents, whom she was caring for before heading to the United States.

The deadline to apply for the first time for TPS for Venezuelans is April 2, 2025. 

Nurses and teachers earning less than $1 per month 

Bastidas, a nurse, explained in Spanish that she decided to leave Venezuela because she didn’t have the resources to properly treat her patients and it left her feeling helpless. Soaring inflation and declining value of the currency meant that her salary of 18-20 bolivares a month — now worth less than $1 — was impossible to live on. 

And Bastidas is not alone. In 2021, an estimated 94% of Venezuelans were living in “extreme poverty,” including 99% of the residents of Yaracuy. In 2020, teachers in the formerly oil-rich nation were surviving on less than $2 a month — and the value of their earnings has decreased by more than half since then.

Statistic: Percentage of population living below the poverty line in Venezuela in 2021, by state | Statista

According to the United States Federal Register, the healthcare system in Venezuela has been worsening since 2014. There have been shortages of medicines and supplies since 2018. Health centers have been underfunded and understaffed and faced blackouts and water shortages, the Human Rights Watch noted in a report in 2022.  

Bastidas’ sister was sending money twice a month to pay for her and their parent’s food. Bastidas decided it was time to move to the U.S. for a better life. For now, she’s living with her sister.

“It was my first time on an airplane,” said Maria Bastidas, who flew into the Orlando International Airport. “I was nervous … (But) the experience here has been very nice. The people have been very kind.”

Speaking in Spanish, she said what has surprised her the most is the diversity of Lakeland’s Latino community. She’s met people from Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Cuba, etc, which she said has made her feel at home. She loves the lakes and Munn Park. The Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market reminds her of the markets in Venezuela. She’s impressed by the movie theaters and the ability for parents to take their kids to the park and movies on the weekends. 

“In Venezuela, we don’t have movie theaters or there isn’t money to go to the movies and the parks are deteriorated,” Bastidas said. 

She looks forward to working, but knows it will be difficult to work here as a nurse because she doesn’t speak English. She’s open to other opportunities until she can learn English, and said she has been filling out job applications. 

Bastidas said life in Venezuela was hard, due to the salaries being in the Venezuelan currency of bolivares, but the prices of everything being in U.S. dollars. 

“The majority of (Venezuelans) depend on people to send them money and things,” Bastidas said, referring to relatives living outside the country who send money so they can eat and survive. 

According to a document from the United States Federal Register which explains why TPS was granted, it states “Venezuela continues to face a severe humanitarian emergency due to a political and economic crisis as well as human rights violations and abuses and high levels of crime and violence, that impacts access to food, medicine, healthcare, water, electricity, and fuel and has led to high levels of poverty. Additionally, Venezuela has recently experienced heavy rainfall in the spring and summer of 2023, which triggered flooding and landslides.” 

The document went on to state “Venezuela is suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the history of the Western hemisphere.”

Bastidas is hopeful that things will improve and she will be able to return. “I have faith that Venezuela will get better … but it’s going to take years to fix the damage.”

Venezuelans turned out in force Sunday — at home and abroad — for the country’s first presidential primary since 2012. Center-right opposition leader María Corina Machado appeared likely to win a 10-candidate race to challenge the rule of President Nicolás Maduro next year.  

‘Culture shock’ for workers raised under communism

Karina Sloan, who came from Venezuela in the early 90s and is now an American citizen and owner of two daycare centers, questions why the U.S. isn’t doing more to help improve living conditions in Venezuela. 

“Why are we not doing anything in Venezuela to stop the massive immigration?” Sloan asked.

Sloan is known to help Venezuelans when they come to the Lakeland community with jobs and getting acclimated. She used to lead the Association of Venezuelans in Lakeland, but has since left the group. She has mixed feelings about the federal government offering temporary protected status. 

Sloan wonders why the government is offering temporary protected status to some, allowing them to stay, but then denying tourist visas to others who’ve been vacationing and visiting family in the U.S. for decades. She said someone she knows was recently denied a tourist visa.

“I don’t think it’s a fair process,” Sloan said. 

What some may also find unfair is that TPS is only being offered if you arrived in the U.S. before July 31. If a Venezuelan entered illegally in August or thereafter and cannot provide a compelling legal reason to remain in the U.S., such as asylum, the Biden Administration announced it will be deporting them back to Venezuela. 

Through Sloan’s daycares, she’s hired many Venezuelans. She’s noticed that the younger generation, who have grown up under the Hugo Chavez/Nicolas Maduro presidencies, lack understanding of daily life in a capitalist society.

“They only know about communism. They come here and it’s a culture shock when they realize they have to work for everything,” Sloan said.  

She said quite a few of the workers she hired had a hard time showing up for work and a few didn’t want to learn English. It ended up costing her more money because she had to hire an additional bilingual worker to assist them in the classroom. 

“We’re letting all these people in with no plans to get them immersed in the culture,” Sloan said. 

She believes that some could be coming because they’ve been persecuted in Venezuela but wonders how that can be verified. By offering TPS to newcomers and renewing it for Venezuelans who’ve been here since 2021, she believes the government is just putting Band-Aids on the issue.

Back in Venezuela, relatives tell her “if you have dollars, you can find everything that you want.” She admits the national currency, the bolivar, isn’t worth much. 

Deportations resume for those who don’t qualify

According to a Department of Homeland Security, Venezuelan nationals applying for an extension of their TPS status have to register between Jan. 10 and Mar. 10 to ensure they keep their work authorization. Once granted, they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. without facing deportation until Sept. 10, 2025. 

However, Mayorkas said in the news release, “it is critical that Venezuelans understand that those who have arrived here after July 31, 2023 are not eligible for such protection, and instead will be removed when they are found to not have a legal basis to stay.”

The U.S. resumed deportations to Venezuela last week for the first time in more than 10 years, flying 130 migrants from the Texas border city of Harlingen to Caracas.

Since May 12, the Biden Administration has deported “over 253,000 individuals to 152 countries, including to Mexico. DHS has removed or returned more family members in the last 4 months than in any previous full fiscal year.”

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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1 Comment

  1. Stephanie,
    Thank you for your investigation of the Venezuelans’ situation. Every day our country Venezuela suffers from a dictatorial regime. It is estimated that more than 7 million Venezuelans have emigrated.
    We need more journalists like you to report on the situation in Venezuela and so that Americans understand why there are so many Venezuelans in the USA and why the government is helping them.
    My best regards,
    Ivan Rodriguez

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