TAMPA — Madison Paredes held a Snow White doll as she sat Friday morning clutched in her mother’s arms. The little girl wore a pink bow in her hair and a shirt with the word "happy" across the chest.
But her parents weren't happy. They were nervous and sleep-deprived.
William Paredes, his wife Jennifer Infante and their two children arrived at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on Cypress Street hoping to stop the deportation process that threatens to send them back to their native Venezuela. A former police officer there, Paredes and his family say they received death threats from government-backed drug traffickers for his role in a big drug bust.
Since they left five years ago, President Nicolás Maduro has tightened his grip on a country now in the throes of a political, economic and humanitarian crisis. Condemning Maduro's human rights abuses, President Donald Trump's administration is working to pressure Maduro to step down. At the same time, however, Trump's immigration officials have been working to send Paredes, Infante and their son back to the country.
"If we go back," Paredes said in Spanish, "we’re scared they will kill us.”
Paredes, 36, said he was working as a K-9 officer for the city of Maracaibo in 2013 when he was part of a big cocaine bust. Shortly after, he started receiving threatening phone calls from members of a collective, or colectivo in Spanish. The armed groups emerged during the tenure of President Hugo Chávez and control vast territory across Venezuela, financed in some cases by the drug trade.
After he was threatened at gunpoint, Paredes knew it was time to go. He and Infante, 35, came to Tampa with their son Sebastian on a tourist visa in 2014 and applied for asylum. As their case worked its way through the system, they made a life here. Paredes works in construction; Infante is a phlebotomist. Madison was born in Tampa so she's a U.S. citizen. Sebastian is now 10.
To qualify for asylum, migrants must prove they face an imminent threat of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Paredes and his family easily meet that standard, said Javier Torres, executive director of the Migrants Foundation in Tampa.
"Their lives are in real danger," Torres said. "All the people who left the country for political reasons are considered traitors to the government."
But the family's application and subsequent appeals were denied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In 2017, an immigration judge ordered their removal from the U.S. The reasons for the asylum denials were unclear this week.
"Both cases have received full due process with the Executive Office for Immigration Review," ICE spokeswoman Tammy Spicer said in a statement. "ICE and Enforcement and Removal Operations will continue to support federal law, agency policy and the order of the courts."
But some lawmakers say it's unconscionable to deport Venezuelans given the state of affairs in their country. A mismanaged state-controlled economy has made food and health care unavailable to many. Dissidents have been jailed and tortured. Maduro is resisting calls to step down and has blocked humanitarian aid.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers are sponsoring a bill that would grant “temporary protective’’ status to Venezuelans living in the United States. The program provides relief from deportation and access to a work permit for foreign nationals unable to safely return to their home country due to natural disasters, armed conflicts or other extraordinary conditions.
Supporters say the protected status should remain in place until power changes hands. The United States is among countries that recognize Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, as interim president.
“While Maduro’s narcoterrorist 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.,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Thursday in a statement announcing the bill.
Florida's other Senator, Republican Rick Scott, also supports the measure.
Paul Palacios, the family's attorney, said the family was told to leave by Feb. 26 but got a short extension after Rubio and Scott's office intervened. Still, they could have been detained on the spot Friday under U.S. immigration law.
Asked what would happen if they were deported, tears welled in Infante's eyes. Her daughter could legally stay but they wouldn't leave her, she said.
“If we stay, we will keep doing what we’ve done since we arrived," her husband said, "respecting the laws, giving a better education to our children, contributing our grain of sand to this country that opened it arms to us."
The family emerged from the ICE office about an hour later. A small group of friends and supporters, one of them waving a Venezuelan flag, asked for news.
"Positiva," Paredes said, pumping a fist. The supporters cheered.
Palacios said ICE officials told the family to return on March 11 so the agency can consider their request. The attorney said he's optimistic they will get a stay of six months to a year.
"We're very happy and hopeful" a smiling Infante said in Spanish, "and we trust in God and our attorney that everything will be ok."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.