WASHINGTON – The Biden administration will offer temporary legal protections to as many as 300,000 Venezuelans now living in the United States – a step the Trump administration resisted even as it imposed devastating economic sanctions on Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.
“The living conditions in Venezuela reveal a country in turmoil, unable to protect its own citizens,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the decision.
White House officials and refugee advocates said it is simply not safe for Venezuelans to return to their home country, where residents are coping with widespread hunger, malnutrition and the growing presence of violent militia groups, among other factors.
The new immigration policy could give President Joe Biden a political boost in the all-important swing state of Florida, where Venezuelans spent years lobbying then-President Donald Trump to protect their fellow countrymen fleeing the economic and humanitarian crisis in the South American nation.
Trump rejected those pleas – until his last full day in office – as he implemented hard-line immigration policies and ended temporary protections for thousands of immigrants from other countries, including Haiti and Nicaragua. On Jan. 19, Trump relented, signing an executive order that deferred the removal of more than 145,000 Venezuelans for 18 months.
Keeping Trump administration sanctions
The Biden administration said it would leave Trump's 11th-hour deportation deferral in place and expand protections for Venezuelans who have fled Maduro's regime. The U.S. and a raft of other countries have called Maduro's rule illegitimate and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president, though Maduro has survived the international pressure to step down.
Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hailed the Biden administration's decision.
“We are striking a blow to the Maduro regime, which has for years deprived its own citizens of education, health care, basic freedoms, and even food,” said Menendez, D-N.J. “As a result of actions taken today, upwards of 300,000 Venezuelan women, men, and children … will no longer live in fear of being returned back to Maduro’s humanitarian catastrophe.”
The White House said Venezuelans living in the U.S. as of March 8 will be eligible for the new protected status, which will last 18 months and could be extended. They will have 180 days to apply to the Department of Homeland Security; the cost will be as much as $545 for biometric screening, work authorization and other paperwork.
It's not clear yet how long DHS will take to process the applications, said a senior administration official said who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
A second administration official said Biden will also keep in place the Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela for now and will continue to work with U.S. allies to push Maduro to relinquish power.
"The United States is in no rush to lift sanctions," this official told reporters.
Under Maduro's rule, Venezuelans have suffered from a spiraling economic and humanitarian crisis. The dire conditions have prompted more than 5 million Venezuelans to flee their homeland, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Maduro's security forces have blocked food, medical supplies and hygiene – despite the pandemic and a starving population suffering from shortages of basic goods in the country.
Contributing: Associated Pre
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden will offer temporary legal protections to Venezuelans in the US