Biden extends TPS status to Venezuelan migrants
Immigrants from Venezuela are reflected in a marble wall while taking shelter at the Chicago Police Department's 16th District station on Monday, May 1, 2023. Shelter space is scarce and migrants awaiting a bed are sleeping on floors in police stations and airports. | Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

The Biden administration has announced that 472,000 Venezuelan refugees and asylum-seekers will be eligible for legal immigration status and work permits. The decision expands humanitarian assistance to the new arrivals, and supporters say it will relieve the enormous strain on cities and states scrambling to care for them.

The Sept. 20 announcement by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorka extends Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 18 months to Venezuelan refugees who arrived at the southern U.S. border before July 31.

Elected officials in New York, Illinois, and other states, immigration activists, organized labor, and business leaders welcomed the announcement. Some are wondering, however, whether the decision not to extend TPS status in a blanket manner for refugees of other nationalities will cause tension and division.

“This action demonstrates how intergovernmental coordination across national, state, and local governments continues to make our city a safe sanctuary to all people,” said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, after Deputy Mayor for Immigrant, Migrant, and Refugee Rights Beatriz Ponce de Leon traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal officials.

The AFL-CIO also praised the Biden administration’s action. “As a result, thousands of migrants…will have the opportunity to work safely and provide vital support to their families and our nation’s economy.

“We applaud this announcement and urge the administration to designate and redesignate TPS for all countries destabilized by conflict and disasters. Unions will continue our work to ensure that all those in our communities are able to live and work with rights and dignity,” said the statement.

Nearly seven million refugees have fled Venezuela, a country of 29 million people, making it the largest refugee crisis ever in the Americas and the second biggest globally.

U.S. interference in Venezuela, the attempt to control the country’s oil and other natural resources, and support for the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez inflamed Venezuelan political, class, and democratic struggles. The imposition of U.S. sanctions under Trump, but continued by Biden, transformed an existing economic, political, and humanitarian crisis into a calamity. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among those calling for ending U.S. sanctions.

“The blockade against Venezuela has had a boomerang-type response, now hitting the very United States, which are the ones who decided to impose the blockade,” Columbian President Gustavo Petro told Democracy Now. “So, knocking at their door is the population they drove into poverty.”

According to the U.N., over 95% of the population lives in poverty, and 75% are in extreme poverty. Many face rampant inflation, extreme violence, gang warfare, and shortages of drinking water, medicine, and essential services.

“Venezuela is a rich country,” Petro said, with “an endless amount of oil and gas, and Venezuela’s population was relatively stable, whatever the regime. But with the blockade, the standard of living of these persons collapsed. How can one partially reduce the exodus? Well, lift the blockade against Venezuela,” he said. Petro discussed lifting the sanctions with President Joe Biden.

Venezuela has been engulfed in political and economic turmoil for years, sharpened by President Nicolás Maduro’s policies of political repression. Between 2016 and 2019, government security forces killed 18,000 people in what it called cases of “resistance to authority.” The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights groups allege many of these deaths were the result of political repression.

It is economics that is behind the bulk of Venezuelan migration, though, which is why TPS is seen by many advocates as good for Venezuelans. Kerri Talbot, the executive director of the Immigration Hub, said that the TPS program is a better fit for Venezuelans than outright political asylum requests because the regular asylum process requires applicants to prove they fear persecution because of their race, religion, or political opinion. None of these are the fundamental problems driving Venezuelan migration, she argued. “Most of them do not have good cases for asylum,” Talbot said of the new arrivals from Venezuela.

Venezuelan asylum-seekers, including women, children, and older people, have mostly fled to other Latin American countries. Petro said 500,000, 75% of them from Venezuela, will traverse the Darien Gap on the Columbia-Panama border, the most inhospitable jungle in the world, on their way to the U.S. this year. That figure could grow to one million next year. Once past the Darien Gap, the figure doubles.

Petro described it as an “exodus” with refugees experiencing “new forms of slavery” at the hands of criminal mafia and armed gangs who make windfall profits moving migrants, raping women, forcing them into prostitution, and exploiting child labor to transport drugs.

Once they enter the U.S., many are shipped, callously and unannounced, by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to Democratic states and Washington, D.C., and dropped at bus stations or airports in a cynical political stunt to undermine the Biden administration and Democrats leading up to the 2024 elections.

But non-profits have also paid for some buses to Chicago and New York, where many refugees have family and other connections.

Once dropped off, refugees face extraordinary challenges obtaining shelter, food, and healthcare, escaping legal status limbo, and falling prey to criminal fraud, wage theft, and sex trafficking.

The administration says it hopes the TPS designation will ease the crisis. Immigration rights advocates and Democratic elected officials have intensely pressured Biden to expedite work permits. Expanded legal status will allow refugees to be employed and rebuild their lives, including attaining housing instead of staying in city-run shelters or facing homelessness as cold weather approaches.

“I’m very pleased President Biden has listened to my concerns and those of other governors and political leaders,” said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. He portrayed Biden’s move as not just aid for migrants but also for private business. “We’re facing worker shortages in critical industries like hospitality, food processing, health care, and transportation, and these additional workers will help relieve those shortages and the burden they place on employers.”

Of 100,000 refugees who have arrived in New York City, over 50,000 are Venezuelan; the city expects to spend $1 billion to care for them.

Chicago is averaging one bus of refugees a day from Texas. Over the past year, 14,000 refugees have arrived, including single adults and many families. Over one-third of the new arrivals are Venezuelan refugees. Most of the rest are from the Northern Triangle countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Ecuador), Haiti, or Ukraine.

Ald. Andre Vasquez, the chair of the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, has been advocating for a TPS designation and welcomed the decision.

“It feels like hope is on the horizon. I’m gladdened and heartened Biden did the right thing. These refugees can now work legally, rent housing, and be part of the tax base. It’s a net benefit for the country,” Vasquez told People’s World.

“However, there is the potential for tension with so many undocumented immigrants already here and waiting for legal status. I think more of a blanket TPS needs to be extended to them so they too can get work permits,” said Vasquez.

In the meantime, city shelters are overwhelmed. Thousands sleep in police precinct lobbies, and non-profits, churches, and solidarity groups provide food and showers. The city is also providing counseling and integrating children into city schools.

Chicago will have spent $250 million by the end of 2023 to care for the refugees, over $20 million per month. The city has received some assistance from the state but not much from the federal government. The Johnson administration announced last week the city faces a $500 million deficit.

The city is scrambling to find additional shelter space and announced a $29 million contract with a company, GardaWorld Federal Services, to erect facilities to house 2,000 migrants. The move is controversial, in part because DeSantis employed the same company to bus migrants to Democratic states, and immigration activists accuse it of mistreating migrant children at the border and labor trafficking on overseas military bases.

According to Vasquez, the administration is in a tough spot but must act, especially with winter around the corner. However, given GardaWorld’s background, he feels the city is best served not working with the company.

“Biden’s decision offers the opportunity to consider other options, including spending that money on leasing or purchasing buildings ready to go and transforming assets into housing or services in the future after the crisis ends,” said Vasquez.

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John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.