As Venezuela has grown more precarious, millions of its citizens have fled — and tens of thousands of them have headed to the U.S., looking to escape the social collapse.
The vast majority are arriving legally, but many are overstaying their visas and now are looking for humanitarian protections from the Trump administration to prevent them from being deported.
In any other time, they’d be the perfect candidates for Temporary Protected Status, which would give them tentative status, allowing them to work and live in the U.S. without fear of removal while their home country works out its problems.
But these aren’t normal times, and the Trump team is intent on disrupting the business-as-usual approach to immigration, particularly when it comes to TPS, which some in the administration see as a backdoor way to expand legal immigration.
The White House is reportedly divided over the question, with the president looking to show generosity toward those fleeing the Maduro government in Venezuela, but wary of undercutting his own immigration message.
Thus the dilemma of TPS.
“There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary refugee,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, who urged the administration not to issue a declaration.
Opposing him are some members of Congress, refugee advocates and immigrant-rights groups, who say Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is on the line.
“TPS was designed for the exact situation that Venezuelans are facing today,” said Ali Noorani, executive director at the National Immigration Forum. “I’m not sure if it’s a legal question or an ideological question the administration is facing at this point.”
Both the White House and Homeland Security clammed up when asked this week about their decision-making.
The decision belongs to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who may be prodded on her thinking Wednesday when she testifies on Capitol Hill.
Cristobal Ramón, a policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Project, said there are several ways to assist Venezuelans fleeing the turmoil. One could be to start a pipeline for refugees, just as the U.S. did with Syria earlier this decade.
But that could take years. He said TPS is a faster option.
“It comes down to how quickly you can respond to the crisis to be able to provide humanitarian protections,” he said.
TPS was created by law in 1990 as a way to give status to people trapped in the U.S. while their home countries suffer. The idea was to prevent them from having to go home, adding to problems there. The status includes both legal visitors and illegal immigrants.
Under the law they’re entitled to work permits, which carry some taxpayer benefits, and they won’t be deported, barring major criminal entanglements.
The status is supposed to expire when the home countries have recovered from the disaster, instability or other mishap.
For some countries that’s been easy to determine. TPS was granted to West African nations during the Ebola outbreaks earlier this decade, and once the threat subsided, TPS expired.
But in other cases it’s been tricky.
Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have been protected since 2001, in the aftermath of an earthquake. The Bush and Obama administrations automatically renewed TPS every 18 months, creating a massive population of people with deep roots — who now demand that they be given full citizenship here in the U.S.
The Trump administration tried to cancel El Salvador’s status, along with grants for Nicaragua, Sudan and Haiti, but federal courts have blocked that move, claiming the administration cut corners and ignored its own experts’ findings that the countries are still in bad shape.
“This administration tried to put the ‘temporary’ back in TPS and our rogue judiciary is preventing them from doing that,” Mr. Krikorian said.
That sentiment is shared by top Trump officials, who have said they are intent on regaining control of the law.
Mr. Noorani says that’s misguided.
“I don’t think we have lost control of TPS as a program. I think this administration has lost vision of what TPS is designed for,” he said.
Estimates for Venezuelans who may be eligible for TPS range from a minimum of 72,000 — the number of Venezuelan asylum cases in the U.S. as of last summer — to several hundred thousand.
Mr. Krikorian said the chief problem is granting all those people work permits, which allows them put down deep roots, and to get Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses.
He recommended some other lesser protection such as an informal halt to deportations, which would allow the migrants to stay, but would not give them access to benefits.
So far, the administration appears to be taking a business-as-usual approach on deportations, with 112 Venezuelans removed through the first four and a half months of fiscal year 2019.
That compares to 248 total deportations in 2017 and 336 recorded last year. It placed 18th on the deportation list, just behind Canada and ahead of Ghana.
Democrats complained to the Trump administration last month.
“We should be taking in more Venezuelan refugees, but our admission numbers are at their lowest in recent history,” Rep. Elliot Engel, New York Democrat and House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, told the administration’s top liaison to Venezuela at a hearing last month. “Worse, the immigration policies of the White House have resulted in more Venezuelans being deported back to Venezuela, and that’s like sending people back into a burning building.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has written legislation that would grant TPS to Venezuela by law, putting the decision in Congress’s hands.
Most of the Venezuelans in question arrive legally. Experts said a number of Venezuelans had approved U.S. visas already, and as the chaos spread they headed north, flexing those visas to enter here.
Some, though, are sneaking across the border.
In December, Border Patrol agents in Arizona stopped a car driving near the border, and found two illegal immigrants from Venezuela. One paid $8,500 to be smuggled into the U.S., while the told agents he had paid $15,000 so far, and owed another $15,000 once he was delivered to his final destination.
TPS is not dependent on how one arrives. Those who snuck in, those who overstayed a visa and those here on legal temporary passes can all win TPS.
Over its nearly 30-year history TPS has been granted to 22 countries. Of those, 12 have had their status ended. They include West African nations such as Sierra Leone, which had TPS from 2014 through 2017 to give the country a chance to recover from an Ebola outbreak.
The Trump administration has tried to end status for six of the other 10, but in at least four of those cases a judge has halted the move, ruling that Homeland Security cut too many corners in its decision-making.
The longest currently active TPS is for Somalia, which was first designated in 1991, and has been re-designated twice since then, meaning new people got covered even if they weren’t in the U.S. by the original deadline. The Trump administration has extended Somalia’s status through next March.
All told, more than 435,000 people were protected by TPS as of October 2017, according to data compiled by the Congressional Research Service.
Democrats in Congress are pushing to grant full citizenship rights to most of them, arguing they’ve been here long enough that it would be cruel to send them home. Some have had children born here, becoming automatic citizens, and parents say they would have to separate, leaving their children to a good life here.
The House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday to advance the idea of citizenship status.
Mr. Trump last year was dismissive of the idea — and reportedly used a vulgarity to describe TPS countries. But this year he was open to including better status for TPS recipients in a border wall deal.
In the end, Democrats rejected his overtures, leaving the issue unsolved.