CARACAS, Venezuela — The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States is accelerating as the oil-rich economy crashes and bloody, anti-government protests roil the nation.

The most recent data from Citizenship and Immigration Services show 8,301 Venezuelans requested asylum in the first three months of 2017. That compares to 3,507 in the first quarter of 2016 and puts the country on pace to surpass last year’s record of 18,155 requests.

Even before the latest crackdown on anti-government protests, Venezuelans were fleeing to the U.S. in droves.

Venezuela last year overtook China as the country with the most people seeking asylum in the U.S. But many arriving were fleeing triple-digit inflation and rampant crime, and therefore don’t qualify for refugee status reserved for those escaping political persecution, according to Julio Henriquez, director of the Boston-based nonprofit Refugee Freedom Program.

Stay on top of breaking news stories with the ABC11 News App

However, the dynamic may be about to change. Henriquez said he expects the numbers of asylum seekers to surge in the coming months as the new data doesn’t yet reflect anti-government protests that kicked off in April and have been brutally repressed, resulting in at least 70 deaths and more than 4,000 arrests, according to local human rights groups.

Read more…