From a White House podium in May, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas outlined new legal pathways to the United States for Venezuelans and others, along with a “very clear” message for those who come illegally.
“Our borders are not open. People who cross our border unlawfully and without a legal basis to remain will be promptly processed and removed,” he said.
On Wednesday, Mayorkas announced temporary legal status for an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who had arrived in the country as of July 31 — including some who ignored his stern warnings and came illegally. Circumstances change, but the Biden administration’s sharp expansion of Temporary Protected Status may complicate its messaging.
Many Venezuelans will migrate to the United States with or without prospects for TPS, a 1990 law that empowers the Homeland Security secretary to grant eligibility for work permits in renewable increments of up to 18 months to people whose home countries are deemed unsafe due to natural disasters or civil strife.
But administration critics say the vast sweep of Mayorkas’s announcement will encourage other Venezuelans to try to enter the U.S., figuring that warnings of swift deportations ring hollow and another expansion will follow.
Smugglers will seize on the news, said Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary under President Donald Trump, whose administration sought to severely limit and reduce the use of TPS.
“It’s just going to incentivize more and more because you’re giving them a benefit that they want,” he said.
Others disagree. Outside a Mexico City bus station Friday, U.S.-bound Venezuelans, none of whom had heard the TPS news, said conditions at home drove them. Danny Romero, 45, flashed a family photo to explain his motivations.
“The one who is 18 years old wants to study medicine, but how can I pay for his school if I don’t have the money? I can’t ruin that dream,” said Romero, who left the northern city of Valencia on Sept. 2.
He came with a nephew and just a few belongings in a backpack, with his children and their mother remaining behind in Venezuela. The son who hopes to become a doctor is currently working as a barber, and another, 14, sells drawings for a dollar each.
A political, social, and economic crisis over the last decade has pushed millions of Venezuelans into poverty, with teachers, professors, and public employees relying on side jobs or remittances from relatives abroad to make ends meet. At least 7.3 million have left the country, with many risking an often-harrowing route to the United States.
This week’s announcement of the status of 472,000 Venezuelans came on top of more than 242,000 who were previously covered under TPS grants in 2021 and 2022.
Returning home to Venezuela is unsafe “due to the enduring humanitarian, security, political, and environmental conditions,” Mayorkas said.
“However, Venezuelans must understand that those who have arrived here after July 31, 2023, are not eligible for such protection, and instead will be removed when they are found to not have a legal basis to stay,” he said.
Under Mayorkas’ watch, TPS grew to cover more than 600,000 people from 16 countries as of the end of March, according to the Congressional Research Service. On Thursday the secretary extended protections to an estimated 14,600 Afghans, on top of the 3,100 who already had them.
Democratic mayors and governors have increasingly pressured the White House to help more with the migratory influx. The city of New York says 40% of the roughly 60,000 asylum-seekers it houses came from Venezuela, and 15,000 of them will now qualify for TPS.
More Venezuelans were encountered at the border this month than nationals of any other country except Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures released by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Venezuelans were stopped 25,777 times in the first 17 days of September, up 63% from the same period a month earlier. Those included some people admitted officially for scheduled asylum appointments, but the vast majority were illegal entries.
Jeremy MacGillivray, deputy representative of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration in Mexico, declined to predict the impact of the TPS expansion but said, based on experience, that “it is likely that measures of this kind, even when positive, encourage people to set out.”
Smugglers sell their services by saying, “Look, President Biden announced the expansion of this measure for Venezuelans, now is the time to come to the border,” MacGillivray said.
Pedro Luis Guerra, a Venezuelan who lived in a Chicago police station lobby after reaching the city in April with his wife and young child, said TPS will be “a great help” to his family. “This is what we’ve wanted for so long, because we came here to succeed and to work, to provide for ourselves and not to be relying on others,” he said.
Guerra said Venezuelans closely follow U.S. immigration policy news but this week’s developments won’t encourage more to come because “those who arrive after July, this law won’t apply to them, so for them the situation remains the same.”
But Jenny Martínez, a 39-year-old nurse who saw her salary eaten up by inflation back home, said conditions there are “too terrible” and Venezuelans are so desperate that many will try to reach the U.S. regardless of what awaits them in terms of legal status.
Speaking in Mexico City across the street from the bus station where she hoped to board a bus north along with her teenage daughter and toddler son, Martínez said the family has been living off remittances from her husband in Utah for the last 18 months and now they’re hoping to join him there.
“The (Venezuelan) government gives you that minimum wage, and what does one do with that? Nothing,” she said. “Venezuelans are going to try to enter no matter what, with or without papers. This is about crossing to be able to work, to be able to send money to grandparents.”
Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana in Washington, Christopher Sherman in Mexico City, and Melissa Winder in Chicago contributed.