CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — U.S. data shows that 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.

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