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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden administration considering humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans

More than 150,000 Venezuelans have been apprehended at the southwestern U.S. border between October 2021 and the end of August.

By Eileen Sullivan and Zolan Kanno-Youngs

The Biden administration is considering a humanitarian parole program for Venezuelans who have been fleeing political instability and poverty in large numbers, according to two administration officials familiar with the proposed plan, which the administration hopes will discourage Venezuelans from crossing the southwestern border illegally.

If implemented, the program for Venezuelans would be similar to a humanitarian program offered to Ukrainians, which allows a family member or sponsor in the United States to apply on behalf of the refugee and commit to providing them with financial assistance while they’re in the country.

While the Ukrainian program received bipartisan support, Republicans have been less welcoming to the Venezuelans, more than 150,000 of whom have been apprehended at the southwestern border from October 2021 through the end of August.

The humanitarian parole program would not apply to Venezuelans who are already in the country, but the hope is that it would encourage migrants to seek refuge in the United States without traveling north by foot, instead of crossing the border illegally. Venezuelans in their home country or who crossed into a neighboring country legally would qualify for the program. Official ports of entry have been closed to migrants since the beginning of the pandemic, effectively forcing those intent on reaching the United States to take a more dangerous route to cross illegally.

The administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a plan that had not yet been finalized.

Because Washington does not have formal diplomatic relations with Caracas, the United States has not been able to repatriate most of the Venezuelans who enter the country and turn themselves in to border officials. Instead, the administration has been giving most permission to stay in the country temporarily and face deportation proceedings in immigration court.

In a significant departure from that process, under the new plan the administration would turn away many Venezuelans who do not have a sponsor or cross illegally. They would be expelled to Mexico under a public health authority — known as Title 42 — that was put in place at the start of the pandemic. This is only possible because Mexico recently agreed to take Venezuelans who are expelled from the United States under Title 42, according to officials.

The full scope of what a humanitarian parole program would look like and why the administration is considering it now were not immediately clear. Immigration advocates have for months been calling for a more orderly process that would allow vulnerable immigrants to enter the country without resorting to breaking U.S. law. But they are firmly against the continued use of the public health authority, which a federal court blocked the Biden administration from lifting earlier this year.

Throughout the Obama and Trump administrations, Mexican and Central American families made up most of those who crossed the border to seek protection in the United States. But the Biden administration has been scrambling to find ways to deter additional populations that until now did not historically cross in record numbers, including Venezuelans. Throughout President Joe Biden’s term, senior White House officials have been anxious over criticism from Republicans and Democrats that the administration lacks an orderly way to both process and turn away migrants who do not qualify for asylum.

In recent months, thousands of Venezuelans have been making the dangerous journey through the Darién Gap between South and Central America to get to the United States. Most of those who have been allowed to stay temporarily will eventually face removal proceedings that will likely take years to advance. The United Nations estimates that more than 6.8 million Venezuelans have fled their country.

Still, Venezuelans only account for about 7% of the total crossings in the southwest between last October and the end of August, according to the most recent government data.

“Venezuelans are only one group. You’re also seeing Cubans and Nicaraguans arriving in significant numbers,” said Cris Ramón, an immigration consultant who has written for the Migration Policy Institute and the George W. Bush Institute. “This policy is not going to address these groups who are arriving at the border right now.”

A plan under consideration by the White House as recently as last week included offering the same humanitarian parole to Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, according to officials briefed on the discussions. It was not immediately clear why these nationalities were ultimately left out. People from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have made up about one-quarter of the total number of migrants crossing the southwestern border between last October and the end of August, according to the most recent government data available.

Last month, Biden said, “What’s on my watch now is Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, and the ability to send them back to those states is not rational.”

The United States has not been repatriating most migrants from Cuba and Nicaragua because of ongoing political instability in those countries and will likely continue releasing them temporarily until they face an immigration court hearing, during which they can try to argue that they should not be deported.

The White House has long been wary of making any changes to its border policy that could encourage more migrants to cross illegally.

Calls for protections for Venezuelan migrants grew louder after Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., flew a group of mostly Venezuelan migrants who had illegally entered the country to Martha’s Vineyard, an upscale island off the Massachusetts coast, last month.

Rebecca Shi, the executive director of a business advocacy group, the American Business Immigration Coalition, said the new program could benefit Florida, “where tourism, construction and rebuilding from natural disasters is so completely dependent on immigrants and refugees.”

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