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Biden extends protective status to thousands of Venezuelan migrants

Vendors in Caracas, Venezuela, last month.
Vendors in Caracas, Venezuela, last month. (Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Biden administration on Monday declared an estimated 320,000 Venezuelan migrants in the United States eligible for temporary protected status, a category of legal residence that would open a path to U.S. citizenship for them under the immigration bill President Biden sent to Congress last week.

Eligibility extends only to Venezuelans in the country as of March 8 who apply within the next 180 days and meet vetting requirements. The program is intended to protect those who are unable to return home safely because of natural disaster, violence or civil unrest.

“The living conditions in Venezuela reveal a country in turmoil, unable to protect its own citizens,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who officially made the designation.

The decision to grant temporary protected status, or TPS, marked the most visible step thus far toward the implementation of campaign pledges Biden made to adopt a Venezuela policy differing from that of President Donald Trump.

Biden promised to increase humanitarian aid to those suffering from scarce food and medicine inside Venezuela, as well as the millions of Venezuelan refugees scattered across Latin America. He said he would mobilize more international pressure to force President Nicolás Maduro to negotiate with opposition leaders toward free and fair elections and to combat corruption that — along with heavy U.S. sanctions — has brought the Venezuelan economy to near-ruin.

But any significant changes will be difficult to see. Trump sanctions remain in effect and “under review,” according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the TPS decision. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules.

Any increased international focus on more-coordinated pressure on Maduro has been largely overshadowed by major foreign policy challenges elsewhere.

Even the TPS implementation provided little substantive change for Venezuelans who have fled to the United States, most of them to Florida.

Legal residence is important to a key voting bloc in the state. While Trump had repeatedly refused to grant TPS to Venezuelans — and his administration secretly deported a number of them — he won Florida in last year’s election with a strong boost from Hispanic voters there after alleging that Biden would bring Venezuela-style socialism to the country.

But on his last full day in office, Trump authorized deferred enforcement departure, or DED, for Venezuelans, giving them temporary immunity from immigration action. Both the Trump order and TPS are good for 18 months and cost $545 in application and approval fees with work authorization.

Biden will face additional tests later this year when previously granted TPS expires for hundreds of thousands of refugees from other countries living in the United States under the program. Trump terminated the status for nationals of El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan — including some who had been in the country many years under repeated extensions — although those actions were blocked by ongoing legal challenges.

Biden’s immigration bill, which is likely to encounter major challenges in Congress, would include migrants living in the United States under TPS and DED among those eligible for permanent residence, followed by citizenship after three years.

The vast majority of the nearly 5 million Venezuelan migrants who have fled economic devastation and the authoritarian regime over the past three years are in Latin America.

Biden’s move comes one month after Colombia — which hosts 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants — won international praise for offering them 10-year temporary protection status, a step that is set to help them gain access to coronavirus vaccines.

Maduro has recently expressed measured optimism that a Biden administration could spell a shift in the Trump sanctions, although the senior administration official said the new administration “is in no rush” to lift them.

The administration has also said it does not intend to negotiate with Maduro, a task it believes should be left to the Venezuelan opposition.

“There is always room for dialogue,” Maduro said during a news conference last month. “There are sectors in the United States that interpret this as a sign of weakness. . . . I hope there is thorough rectification of these policies.”

Venezuelan opposition officials say they believe the Biden team may be better positioned than the Trump administration to work with European allies, who have resisted some measures to ramp up pressure on Maduro.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first formal contact with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by the United States and dozens of other nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. The opposition, which remains divided over Guaidó’s continued leadership, has worked with U.S. officials to try to formulate a new strategy for maintaining internal unity and pressure on Maduro.

“The United States continues to be one of our main allies in achieving a transition,” Guaidó tweeted after the telephone conversation. He later told a Colombian news outlet that “we always had confidence in the Biden administration, and we have it today.”

Faiola reported from Miami. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas contributed to this report.