Politics

Biden Gives Venezuelans Reprieve to Remain in U.S. Trump Had Rejected

WASHINGTON — As many as 320,000 Venezuelans living in the United States were given an 18-month reprieve on Monday from the threat of being deported, as the Biden administration sought to highlight how dangerous that country has become under President Nicolás Maduro.

The immigrants also will be allowed to work legally in the United States as part of the temporary protective status the administration issued as it considers the next steps in a yearslong American pressure campaign to force Mr. Maduro from power.

“The living conditions in Venezuela reveal a country in turmoil, unable to protect its own citizens,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said in a statement. “It is in times of extraordinary and temporary circumstances like these that the United States steps forward to support eligible Venezuelan nationals already present here, while their home country seeks to right itself out of the current crises.”

Venezuela is mired in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises under Mr. Maduro, who, through a mix of corruption and neglect, oversaw the decay of the country’s oil infrastructure that had propped up its economy. The United Nations has estimated that up to 94 percent of Venezuela’s population lives in poverty, with millions of people bereft of regular access to water, food and medicine.

Two senior Biden administration officials said the new protections would be offered to those who can prove they are living in the United States as of Monday. The cutoff date aimed to discourage smugglers from enticing other Venezuelans to make the arduous journey to the United States at a time the Biden administration is already struggling with how to accommodate thousands of Central American migrants headed to the southern border.

It had been expected that President Biden would give temporary protective status to Venezuelan immigrants, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had endorsed it during his Senate confirmation hearing in January.

Though the Trump administration had resisted issuing the same protections — despite intense lobbying from Mr. Maduro’s opponents — President Donald J. Trump delayed deportations for many Venezuelans in the United States on his last day in office.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group, said the legal protective status was generally more durable than a presidential order, and noted that the Department of Homeland Security had not been given time to fully enact Mr. Trump’s 18-month deferred deportations.

Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan opposition’s envoy to Washington, called the new protections “a just, urgent and necessary measure that is finally a reality.”

The United States has been at the fore of an international campaign to force Mr. Maduro from power since disputed elections in 2018. It is one of the few foreign policy priorities that has been advanced by both the Biden and Trump administrations, each of which recognizes Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader and former head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate leader.

But one of the officials who briefed reporters on Monday on condition that he not be identified said the Biden administration was reviewing whether to lift a raft of economic sanctions that experts believe have cost Venezuela’s government has much as $31 billion since 2017.

The official said that review would assess whether the economic pressure exacted against Mr. Maduro and his government was worth the risk of exacerbating the dire living conditions for Venezuelans.

The new protections were welcomed by Democrats and Republicans in Congress who had appeared divided on the approach to immigration policy under Mr. Trump.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said he supported the protections, although “it is critical that we continue working with our democratic allies to secure a Venezuela free from tyranny and ensure this temporary status in the U.S. does not become a permanent one.”

Senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, both Democrats, noted that earlier efforts to allow Venezuelan immigrants to remain in the United States were blocked by the former president’s supporters in Congress.

“For years, the world watched in horror as man-made humanitarian and political crises turned Venezuela into a failed state,” the senators said in a joint statement. “Despite these disastrous and dangerous conditions, Venezuelans were still forcibly deported back to their country by the Trump administration.”

Mr. Trump had sought to strip the protections from about 400,000 immigrants living and working in the United States under a program that Congress approved in 1990 for foreigners who have fled their homes because of conflict and natural disasters. In September, a federal appeals court sided with the Trump administration’s argument that immigrants from places like El Salvador, Haiti and Sudan, which were recovering from disasters or political turmoil, no longer needed safe haven in the United States.

Monday’s announcement signaled that the Biden administration was likely to continue at least some of the protections.

Roberto Marrero, a Venezuelan opposition leader who moved to Florida after spending a year and a half in jail in Venezuela, called Monday’s decision a “bittersweet victory.”

“It gives us protection,” he said, “but also reminds us that we’re here because there’s a dictatorship in our country.”

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Bogotá, Colombia.


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