Top lawmakers in Congress push to protect Venezuelans facing deportation

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers unveiled a new plan Thursday to protect Venezuelans living in the United States from being forced to return to the troubled South American country.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, who is leading the effort, said the “extraordinary depths” of the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has forced millions of Venezuelans to flee causing an upheaval throughout the region.

Menendez, joined by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, are seeking to give Temporary Protected Status to eligible Venezuelans already living in the United States. Created in 1990, the status would allow recipients to be able to remain in the country and work legally.

“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,” said Menendez, the senior Democrat of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House, however, is not expected to support the legislation. The administration has already sought to end TPS for most countries, including El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Liberia and Nepal. Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras comprise the bulk of the immigrants. A federal judge, however, has temporarily blocked the administration’s plans to stop renewing the status for an estimated 300,000 people who currently have it.

The administration did not respond to questions about TPS, but have said they’re discussing ways to help Venezuelans who arrive at the border, including the possibility of increasing asylum for Venezuelans. The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to designate a country with TPS status, but the legislation directs the administration to protect Venezuelans for 18 months under the same guidelines

James McCament, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote last year to groups lobbying for TPS that the administration was monitoring the crisis in Venezuelan but that TPS is based on specific criteria and that the administration also has humanitarian programs available to eligible Venezuelans outside of TPS.

The administration has already granted nearly $100 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the Venezuela regional crisis.

Giving the effort a boost, Rubio, who has worked closely with the Trump administration on Latin American policy, has also signed on to the proposal. Rubio said it’s clear granting the status is warranted considering the existing conditions in Venezuela.

“Granting this protection will provide a temporary solution to many Venezuelans who fear returning to their homeland due to the ongoing crisis and extraordinarily difficult conditions,” Rubio said.

Incoming Miami Rep. Donna Shalala has said expanding TPS to Venezuelans will be one of her top priorities and the idea could have traction when the House of Representatives is under Democratic control beginning in January.

Alex Daugherty of the Miami Herald contributed to this report

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.