March 8 (UPI) -- The Biden administration on Monday said it will allow potentially hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans already in the United States to remain in the country due to the humanitarian crisis their country faces.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced he designated Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status on Monday, enabling Venezuelans in the United States to file for TPS deportation protection, citing the deteriorating situation in the South American country that prevents their safe return.
"The living conditions in Venezuela reveal a country in turmoil, unable to protect its own citizens," Mayorkas said in a statement. "It is in times of extraordinary and temporary circumstances like these that the United States steps forward to support eligible Venezuelan nationals already present here, while their home country seeks to right itself out of the current crisis."
Mayorkas, who was sworn in early last month, made the announcement after outgoing President Donald Trump on his final day in office pulled short of designating Venezuela for TPS, despite strong lobbying to do so, and instead granted Deferred Enforced Departure.
TPS, which is a legal immigration status, authorizes nationals from designated countries to work in the United States while those covered by DED, which is granted by the president and may be ended at any time, may request employment authorization, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains on its website.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates in the yet-to-be-published designation document that some 323,000 Venezuelans will be eligible under the TPS designation, which runs from Tuesday until September, 2022.
Carlos Vecchio, the ambassador to the United States for the Venezuelan opposition, called it an "urgent and necessary" measure to protect Venezuelans victimized by "the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro" and forced to flee their native country.
"This measure will allow them to live, work and be legally protected in the United States, with the peace of mind that they will not be deported," he said in a statement, adding that they accept the TPS measures as support for a free Venezuela.
Under the Trump administration, the United States pursued a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions and diplomatic isolation to force Maduro from the country's helm after his 2018 election was deemed illegitimate. The United States also threw its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido, who was appointed interim president.
Ivan Duque, president of Colombia, also congratulated Biden via Twitter for providing TPS protection to "our Venezuelan brothers who are in their country, fleeing from hunger and desolation, derived from the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro."
Jorge Arreaza, the foreign minister of Venezuela, rejected the designation as reinforcing the economic moves made under the Trump administration.
"The coherent thing would be that the next step of the new U.S. Administration is the TOTAL LIFTING of arbitrary sanctions that generate pain and suffering in the people of Venezuela," he said.
The Catholic Legal Immigration Network called TPS an underused mechanism to protect vulnerable populations, stating Venezuela was the first country to receive the designation in six years.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 10 countries aside from Venezuela have been designated, including El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among others.
"It's a major moment to have a new TPS designation," Lisa Parisio, CLINIC's advocacy attorney for policy, said in a statement. "TPS is a critical but underused authority that should be applied boldly and broadly, as a pillar of humanitarian immigration policy."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, has led efforts for the Senate to designate Venezuela for TPS and on Monday he thanked Biden in a statement, saying the president did what Trump failed to do and Republicans had repeatedly voted against to legislate.
"By supporting the Venezuelan people, we are dealing a heavy blow to the Maduro regime, which for years has deprived its own people of education, medical care, basic freedoms and even a plate of food," he said. "And with this decision we are sending a powerful signal to our allies and competitors that the United States is once again committed to the cause of democracy."
Ned Price, the press secretary for the State Department, was pressed by reporters during a regular press briefing on Monday concerning the Biden administration's stance toward Venezuela and was asked if it was pursuing regime change as its predecessor administration did.
In response, he said the goal is a peaceful democratic transition in the South American nation.
"We know at the root of much of the misery and the suffering of the people of Venezuela stands one individual, and we have been very clear that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator. His actions have not been in the best interests of the people of Venezuela," he said.