WASHINGTON—The Biden administration said it would grant temporary legal authorization to Venezuelans in the U.S. without permission, allowing potentially hundreds of thousands of people to remain in the country.
The Temporary Protected Status designation, which lasts for 18 months and can be renewed, offers Venezuelans in the U.S. work permits and temporary protections against deportation. Venezuelans who enter the U.S. after March 8 can’t qualify for the program, a senior administration official said. As many as 320,000 people could be eligible for the program, the person said.
The decision—which follows a nearly identical move by former President Donald Trump in his final hours in office—is the first major policy move in the Biden administration’s pressure campaign against the Venezuelan regime of President Nicolás Maduro.
The Trump administration targeted the Maduro regime with sanctions, a limited travel ban on government officials and other measures. In Jan. 2019, the U.S. officially recognized the country’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s interim president.
Mr. Trump granted Venezuelans in the U.S. without legal permission a status called Deferred Enforced Departure, which is nearly identical to TPS but is issued directly by the president rather than the secretary of Homeland Security.
Mr. Trump’s decision followed years of internal disagreements in the administration over whether to grant TPS to Venezuelans. Foreign-policy officials supported granting deportation relief as a way of expressing public support for the Venezuelan people, but immigration hard-liners opposed the move, saying it would run contrary to Mr. Trump’s crackdown on immigrants and asylum seekers.
TPS is a more recognized status in most immigrant communities, and even after Mr. Trump’s authorization, calls continued for Mr. Biden to grant TPS to Venezuelans, as he had promised to do on the campaign trail.
Immigration advocates say TPS designations tend to be renewed for longer than DED, giving the community a measure of greater protection. The senior official said the Biden administration preferred TPS in part because it is a form of protection created by Congress, whereas DED is a presidential power. Democrats and Republicans alike have long supported the TPS designation.
The issue gained prominence during the 2020 presidential campaign because the largest community of Venezuelans in the U.S. lives in Florida, a battleground state.
Mr. Trump won greater support in Miami-Dade county, home to many Venezuelans and Cubans, than he had four years prior, in part by saying that Democratic candidates supported socialism. Mr. Trump’s move to offer the community deportation relief was seen as a way to undercut one of Mr. Biden’s campaign promises by claiming credit for the move.
Mr. Maduro has clung to power despite a slew of U.S. sanctions targeting Venezuela’s oil industry, the country’s main source of wealth.
Biden administration officials said a decision on whether to keep sanctions on Venezuela was still under review.
“There is no rush to lift sanctions unless the Maduro regime demonstrates it’s ready to sit down at the table,” a senior administration official said.
Biden administration officials said the U.S. would focus on building a consensus with allies to promote free and fair elections in Venezuela.
The officials didn’t say how this would differ from the Trump administration’s approach, which was also focused on working closely with Venezuela’s neighbors and other allies. Instead, Venezuela became the focus of a contest between superpowers, with Russia stepping in to buoy Mr. Maduro.
Despite years of efforts, talks between Mr. Maduro and the opposition have led nowhere, while Mr. Guaidó’s political position has continued to weaken.
About 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country’s economic collapse, most of them settling in Colombia and other parts of South America.
The coronavirus pandemic has only compounded the misery for Venezuelans, who have been subject to a xenophobic backlash in other countries struggling to respond to the pandemic.
In February, Colombia granted legal status to about one million Venezuelan refugees.
Write to Jessica Donati at email@example.com
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