Biden administration to offer temporary protection to nearly half-million Venezuelans

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WASHINGTON - The Biden administration is granting temporary legal status to 472,000 Venezuelan migrants who are already in the U.S., a major step toward aiding asylum seekers as the number of migrants at the southern border is on the rise again.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas − citing political instability in Venezuela preventing the safe return of migrants − extended the temporary protected status designation by 18 months for Venezuelan migrants who arrived in the U.S. this year prior to July 31.

The move Wednesday was applauded by Democrats who have pushed the White House to do more to help migrants seeking asylum and blasted by congressional Republicans from Texas who accused the Biden administration of further enflaming unrest at the border.

"The Biden administration is making the border invasion worse," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a statement. "This news will incentivize even more illegal aliens from Venezuela to come."

The action allows eligible Venezuelan migrants to work in the U.S. and adds to the 242,700 Venezuelans who already qualified for temporary protected status before Wednesday’s announcement. Mayorkas said Venezuelan migrants who arrived after July 31 will be removed from the U.S. if they don't have a legal basis to stay.

President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ORG XMIT: NYSW317
President Joe Biden speaks as he meets with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in New York, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ORG XMIT: NYSW317

Other moves target border, work permits

A political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela over the past decade has pushed at least 7.3 million people to migrate, mostly to neighboring Latin American countries, but more recently to the U.S. Many have made their journeys through the dangerous Darien Gap, a remote jungle between Colombia and Panama that is treacherous and often deadly.

The Biden administration also announced the deployment of an additional 800 military personnel to the southern border and touted escalated efforts to prosecute individuals smuggling drugs or persons into the U.S.

In another significant change praised by immigrant advocates, the Homeland Security department extended the validity of work permits for asylum seekers from two years to five, easing the financial hardship of paying $410 each renewal and reducing the department's enormous backlog of applicants.

"People need to be able to work while they wait for their asylum application to be processed," said Conchita Cruz, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. "In some cases, that could take up to a decade."

Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border increased in July and August after initially dropping sharply in May and June after the Biden administration launched a new policy requiring migrants heading to the U.S. border to first seek protection in Mexico.

President Joe Biden adopted the rule following the expiration of Title 42, a COVID-19 pandemic policy that allowed the U.S. to cite fears of spreading the virus as a reason to expel migrants.

The border town of Eagle Pass, Texas, on Wednesday announced a state of emergency after nearly 6,000 migrants crossed the Rio Grande River from Mexico over a two-day period.

Venezuelan migrants sleep during their travel in a pirogue to Meteti, thorugh the Chucunaque river from Canaan Membrillo village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on October 12, 2022. Halfway into 2023, nearly a quarter million migrants have crossed the Darien Gap, the dense jungle separating Panama and Colombia, already breaking last year's record, Panama's government said on July 31, 2023.

Democratic mayors, governors praise action

The White House has faced recent pressure from Democratic mayors from major U.S. cities, including New York Mayor Eric Adams, and governors to take action to allow newly migrants to work legally. In New York City, more than 116,000 asylum seekers have arrived since the spring of 2022.

Adams, who said he spoke to the White House Wednesday might about the announcement, called the action an "important step that will bring hope to the thousands of Venezuelan asylum seekers currently in our care."

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, also applauded the move, saying she is grateful the Biden administration "acted so speedily" to grant one of New York's top priority but adding there's more work to do to address the migrant crisis.

"The State of New York is prepared to immediately begin the process of signing people up for work authorization and getting them into jobs so they can become self-sufficient," Hochul said.

Like Cruz, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, slammed the granting of temporary status to Venezuelans. "When Biden tells migrants 'do not come to the US' and then creates a magnet like work permits, it undermines all deterrence," Cornyn said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration would prefer to address surging migration in a bipartisan way with the help of Republicans but added, "Right now, we are doing it in the best way that we can."

Recently arrived migrants gather outside of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on August 14, 2023 in New York City.
Recently arrived migrants gather outside of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on August 14, 2023 in New York City.

Temporary protected status, or TPS, has long been a contentious partisan issue, with Republican critics arguing a temporary designation should not become a permanent immigration program. For years, Congress has feuded over granting temporary protected status to Venezuelans while trying to end the program in countries such as Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Former President Donald Trump attempted to end the designation for those countries, but that effort was tied up in court. But on his very last day in office, Trump conceded and was the first to grant TPS to Venezuelans.

In June, the Biden administration reversed the Trump-era termination of other nationalities.

A minority of Republicans in the Florida delegation, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, have previously expressed support for granting temporary legal protection to Venezuelans. Rubio's office did not respond to a request for comment on the Biden administration's move.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat, commended the Biden administration for taking steps to allow "hundreds of thousands of families – who arrived fleeing dictatorship and seeking freedom and opportunity – to build new lives and contribute to our community.”

Contributing: Associated Press. Reach Joey Garrison on X, formerly known as Twitter, @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden administration offers temporary protection status to Venezuelans