Jan. 20 (UPI) -- In his final hours in office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order protecting tens of thousands of Venezuelan refugees in the United States from deportation.
The outgoing president signed the order Tuesday night under the Deferred Enforced Departure program to prohibit for 18 months the deportation of most Venezuelans seeking refuge from the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro in the United States.
"The deteriorative condition within Venezuela, which presents an ongoing national security threat to the safety and well-being of the American people, warrants the deferral of the removal of Venezuelan nationals who are present in the United States," Trump said in the order.
Under the order, Venezuelans in the United States as of Wednesday who have not been convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors and whose presence has not been determined by the secretary of Homeland Security to be against the nation's interests will be shielded from deportation.
The United States has long sanctioned the socialist nation but has increased its effort under the Trump administration following the 2018 re-election of Maduro that was deemed illegitimate by the Venezuelan National Assembly.
Since then, the United States has led a coalition of more than 55 countries in supporting the interim presidency of National Assembly head Juan Guaido.
The State Department said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke with Guaido on Monday and reaffirmed the United States' commitment to the Venezuelan people "as they continue to face one of the world's worst humanitarian crisis created by the illegitimate Maduro regime."
Earlier Tuesday, Pompeo sanctioned an oil network he accused of aiding the Maduro regime in evading earlier imposed penalties.
The United Nations Refugee Agency said some 4.5 million Venezuelans have fled the South American nation since 2014 due to violence, inflation, gang warfare, crime and shortages of food, medicine and essential services -- conditions Washington blames Maduro for creating by running a corrupt government.
Since 2007, Venezuela has frequently ranked among the top 10 nations whose citizens have filed new affirmative asylum applications in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service, which said the number has been steadily increasing.
In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, Venezuela nationals filed the highest number of applications, accounting for 20% and 27% of all such filings made in those respective years.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., thanked the president in a statement for his "momentous decision."
"As one of his last decisions in office, President Trump has guaranteed that those Venezuelans who sought safety in the United States will not be returned to the dictatorship, where they could be subject to persecution, human rights abuses or even death," he said. "Today's action is a fitting continuation of a foreign policy that champions human rights and democracy while standing up to dictators in our hemisphere."
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., however, criticized the president for waiting until his last day in office to grant the protection.
"Only a coward waits to pass DED until his last moments in office," he tweeted. "How many Venezuelan families suffered in the meantime?"