With temporary status for Venezuelans, the Biden administration turns to a familiar tool

Sep 22, 2023, 10:05 PM

Migrants climb over concertina wire after they crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mex...

Migrants climb over concertina wire after they crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — From a White House podium in May, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas outlined new legal pathways to the United States for Venezuelans and others, along with a “very clear” message for those who come illegally.

“Our borders are not open. People who cross our border unlawfully and without a legal basis to remain will be promptly processed and removed,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mayorkas announced temporary legal status for an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who had arrived in the country as of July 31 — including some who ignored his stern warnings and came illegally. Circumstances change, but the Biden administration’s sharp expansion of Temporary Protected Status may complicate its messaging.

Many Venezuelans will migrate to the United States with or without prospects for TPS, a 1990 law that empowers the Homeland Security secretary to grant eligibility for work permits in renewable increments of up to 18 months to people whose home countries are deemed unsafe due to natural disasters or civil strife.

But administration critics say the vast sweep of Mayorkas’ announcement will encourage other Venezuelans to try to enter the U.S., figuring that warnings of swift deportations ring hollow and another expansion will follow.

Smugglers will seize on the news, said Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary under President Donald Trump, whose administration sought to severely limit and reduce use of TPS.

“It’s just going to incentivize more and more, because you’re giving them a benefit that they want,” he said.

Others disagree. Outside a Mexico City bus station Friday, U.S.-bound Venezuelans, none of whom had heard the TPS news, said conditions at home drove them. Danny Romero, 45, flashed a family photo to explain his motivations.

“The one who is 18 years old wants to study medicine, but how can I pay for his school if I don’t have the money? I can’t ruin that dream,” said Romero, who left the northern city of Valencia on Sept. 2.

He came with a nephew and a few belongings in a backpack. His children and their mother remain in Venezuela. The son who hopes to become a doctor is working as a barber, and another, 14, sells drawings for a dollar each.

A political, social and economic crisis over the last decade has pushed millions of Venezuelans into poverty, with teachers, professors and public employees relying on side jobs or money from relatives abroad to make ends meet. At least 7.3 million have left the country, with many risking an often-harrowing route to the United States.

The recent announcement of status for 472,000 Venezuelans came on top of more than 242,000 who were previously covered under TPS grants in 2021 and 2022.

Returning home to Venezuela is unsafe “due to the enduring humanitarian, security, political, and environmental conditions,” Mayorkas said.

“However, it is critical that Venezuelans understand that those who have arrived here after July 31, 2023, are not eligible for such protection, and instead will be removed when they are found to not have a legal basis to stay,” he said.

Homeland Security said Saturday that it was using “the limited tools it has available” because Congress has failed to agree to comprehensive changes to the U.S. immigration system.

Under Mayorkas’ watch, TPS grew to cover more than 600,000 people from 16 countries as of the end of March, according to estimated 14,600 Afghans, on top of the 3,100 who already had them.

Democratic mayors and governors have increasingly pressured the White House to help more with the migratory influx. The city of New York says 40% of the roughly 60,000 asylum-seekers it houses came from Venezuela, and 15,000 of them will now qualify for TPS.

More Venezuelans were encountered at the border this month than nationals of any other country except Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Venezuelans were stopped 25,777 times the first 17 days of September, up 63% from the same period a month earlier. Those included some people admitted for scheduled asylum appointments, but the vast majority were illegal entries.

In Eagle Pass, Texas, on Saturday, an international rail bridge reopened about three days after it closed in response to the migrant influx.

About 900 migrants crossed Thursday and 1,200 Friday as of mid-afternoon, Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber. Those numbers were down from earlier in the week.

Many migrants released from CBP custody arrived at Eagle Pass’ only migrant shelter, Mission: Border Hope.

The shelter recently moved to a new location that was previously a Sears store. Because of the increase in migrants, shelter officials decided to skip an inauguration ceremony Tuesday and immediately open, said Valeria Wheeler, the shelter executive director.

“We still do not have the signage,” Wheeler said.

Problems surfaced the first day with the plumbing, but migrants such as Mari Isabel Cadena said they were happy to have food, water, and shelter while they waited for their relatives to be released and for a bus to take them to their final destinations.

Jeremy MacGillivray, deputy representative of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration in Mexico, declined to predict the impact of the TPS expansion but said, based on past experience, that “it is likely that measures of this kind, even when positive, encourage people to set out.”

Smugglers sell their services by saying, “Look, President Biden announced the expansion of this measure for Venezuelans, now is the time to come to the border,” MacGillivray said.

Pedro Luis Guerra, a Venezuelan who lived in a Chicago police station lobby after reaching the city in April with his wife and young child, said TPS will be “a great help” to his family. “This is what we’ve wanted for so long, because we came here to succeed and to work, to provide for ourselves and not to be relying on others,” he said.

Guerra said Venezuelans closely follow U.S. immigration policy news but this week’s developments won’t encourage more to come because “those who arrive after July, this law won’t apply to them, so for them the situation remains the same.”

Jenny Martínez, a 39-year-old nurse who saw her salary eaten up by inflation back home, said conditions there are “too terrible” and Venezuelans are so desperate that many will try to reach the U.S. regardless of what awaits them in terms of legal status.

Speaking in Mexico City across the street from the bus station where she hoped to board a bus north along with her teenage daughter and toddler son, Martínez said the family has been living off remittances from her husband in Utah for the last 18 months and are now hoping to join him there.

“Venezuelans are going to try to enter no matter what, with or without papers,” she said. “This is about crossing to be able to work, to be able to send money to grandparents.”


Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Washington, Christopher Sherman in Mexico City and Melissa Winder in Chicago contributed.


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With temporary status for Venezuelans, the Biden administration turns to a familiar tool