Senators push to shield Venezuelans from deportation from US

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., says providing Venezuelans Temporary Protected Status is "the humanitarian and morally responsible thing to do."
Image: Venezuelan migrants
Venezuelan migrants wait to cross border at the Binational Border Service Center of Peru, on the border with Ecuador, in Tumbes, Peru on Oct. 31, 2018.Sebastian Castaneda / Reuters file

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By Suzanne Gamboa and Carmen Sesin

Top Senate Democrats and GOP Sen. Marco Rubio have joined forces on legislation that would allow Venezuelans to stay in the U.S. with temporary protection from deportation and work permits.

Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee; Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate minority whip; Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Judiciary Committee ranking member and Rubio of Florida, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; introduced a bill that would grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans.

The United Nations has said that more than 3 million Venezuelan refugees have fled the country’s economic and political turmoil. Colombia has taken in most of the refugees, followed by Peru. Venezuelans also have fled to Ecuador, Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

But the U.N. has warned that those countries’ “reception capacity is severely strained” and has called for more response from the rest of the world.

“Providing Temporary Protected Status for eligible individuals and supporting migration systems in the region to assist Venezuelans who are prevented from returning safely to their country is the humanitarian and morally responsible thing to do,” Menendez said in a statement.

With Congress days from adjourning, the bill won’t advance and the senators will have to reintroduce it next year. But by introducing it now, the lawmakers signal what they will be pressing for in the next Congress and can start building support in the public.

Rubio said granting TPS would provide a temporary solution to Venezuelans fearful of returning home.

“As Venezuelans continue to face serious threats to their safety and livelihood at the hands of Maduro’s narcoterrorist tyranny, it is clear in-country conditions warrant granting temporary protected status to Venezuelan nationals residing in the U.S.,” Rubio said in a statement.

The senators spelled out the country’s dire conditions in their draft legislation, including that:

  • The International Monetary Fund predicts inflation in Venezuela could reach an annual rate of 1 million percent.
  • More than 9 million people in Venezuela are eating two or fewer meals a day.
  • Moderate to severe malnutrition among Venezuelan children under 5 years old increased by more than 50 percent in 2017 and some 300,000 are at risk of dying from malnutrition.

The country’s crisis has intensified political tensions between the United States and Russia. Russia deployed two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela on Monday. It was not clear if they carried weapons.

Their arrival followed a trip to Moscow by Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro seeking political and economic assistance.

The United States and European Union have been stepping up sanctions against the Venezuelan government and its officials as Maduro has tightened his grip on power in the country.

Trump has backed the tougher sanctions on Venezuela, blasting Maduro’s socialism. In September, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration met with Venezuelan military officers wanting to overthrow Maduro.

But as part of Trump's immigration crackdown, his administration also has ended Temporary Protected Status for a number of immigrants from other countries and who have lived in the U.S. for decades. Some immigrants have won reprieves in court cases, although the Trump administration is appealing. Others still face termination of their TPS next year and deadlines for leaving the country.

Requests for asylum by Venezuelans have soared in the last couple of years, from 5,605 applications in 2015 to 27,629 in 2017. With the nation’s asylum request backlog, the wait for adjudication of the requests can be long.

Patricia Andrade, founder of the Venezuela Awareness Foundation in South Florida said she doubts the bill will get much traction. "I appreciate what they are doing, but I'm realistic," she said.

Andrade, who assists recently arrived Venezuelans through her organization, says the U.S. already has their policy formulated, which she says is to help countries taking in Venezuelan migrants, so they don’t come to the U.S.

Through U.S.A.I.D., Washington has provided nearly $100 million since fiscal year 2017 for regional countries that have been absorbing large volumes of Venezuelans.

“The U.S. is pressuring other countries to accept Venezuelans so they don’t enter the U.S.,” Andrade said.

Juan Pachon, a spokesman for Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said with Democrats in charge of the House next year and bipartisan support for the legislation, next year’s bill could make headway.

A White House endorsement also wouldn't hurt and Pachon said he's hoping Rubio can use his relationship with Trump to move the bill forward.