WASHINGTON (AP) - The Biden administration said Wednesday that it was granting temporary legal status to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who are already in the country — quickly making them eligible to work — as it grapples with growing numbers of people fleeing the South American country and elsewhere to arrive at the U.S. border with Mexico.
The move — along with promises to accelerate work permits for many migrants — may appease Democratic leaders who have pressured the White House to do more to aid asylum seekers, while also providing grist for Republicans who say the president has been too lax on immigration.
The Homeland Security Department plans to grant Temporary Protected Status to an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who arrived in the country as of July 31, 2023, making it easier for them to get authorization to work in the U.S. That's been a key demand of Democratic mayors and governors who are struggling to care for an increased number of migrants in their care.
That's in addition to about 242,700 Venezuelans who already qualified for temporary status before Wednesday's announcement.
The protections for Venezuelans are significant because they account for such a large number of the migrants who have been arriving in the country in recent years.
Venezuela plunged into a political, economic and humanitarian crisis over the last decade, pushing at least 7.3 million people to migrate and making food and other necessities unaffordable for those who remain. The vast majority who fled settled in neighboring countries in Latin America, but many began coming to the United States in the last three years through the notoriously dangerous Darien Gap, a stretch of jungle in Panama.
Venezuelans who arrive in the U.S. after July 31 of this year will not be eligible for the protection. Those who are now eligible have to apply to get it.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas granted the expansion and an 18-month extension for those who already have temporary status due to "Venezuela's increased instability and lack of safety due to the enduring humanitarian, security, political, and environmental conditions," the department said in a statement.
The administration said it would accelerate work authorizations for people who have arrived in the country since January through a mobile app for appointments at land crossings with Mexico, called CBP One, or through parole granted to Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who have financial sponsors and arrive at an airport. It will aim to give them work permits within 30 days, compared with about 90 days currently.
The promise of accelerated work permits does not apply to people who cross the border illegally and seek asylum, who, by law, must wait for six months to receive work permits.
Mayors and governors have been clamoring for President Joe Biden to figure out a way to get newly arrived migrants to be able to work legally, so they can support themselves.
Democratic officials in New York , Massachusetts, Chicago and elsewhere have complained about the strain that newly arrived migrants are putting on their resources, especially in New York, where the government is required to provide housing for anyone who needs it. The city is currently paying to house about 60,000 newly arrived migrants.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement late Wednesday that she was "grateful the federal government has acted so speedily to grant one of our top priorities: Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants who have already arrived in this country."
The city's mayor, Eric Adams, has been especially critical of the Biden administration. But Adams on Wednesday praised the decision to grant protections to Venezuelans and thanked the administration for listening to the city's concerns.
The number of migrants trying to cross the southern border is rising. That poses a severe challenge for the administration, which has struggled to show it is in control of the border in the face of Republican criticism. The city of Eagle Pass, which borders Mexico along the Rio Grande in southern Texas, announced a state of emergency Wednesday due to a "severe undocumented immigrant surge."
According to Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber, about 2,700 migrants crossed into Eagle Pass on Tuesday and about 3,000 Wednesday.
The administration also said Wednesday it was also using Defense Department forces to support Homeland Security staff on the border. Homeland Security already uses about 2,500 National Guard troops to help Customs and Border Protection. In the news release, Homeland Security said up to 800 new active-duty troops would also be detailed to the border; they would be used for things like logistics to free up Customs officials for more front-line responsibilities.
Homeland Security said it was also taking other steps to deal with immigration, such as scaling up a process started in May to quickly remove families who are found to have no basis to stay in the country. The agency said it has also beefed up holding capacity along the southern border.
And it said it has increased the number of people expelled from the country. Since May 12, the agency said it has removed 253,000 people to a little over 150 countries around the world. That compares with 180,000 removed during the same period in 2019 — before the pandemic drastically alerted the government’s ability to expel migrants.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Valerie Gonzalez in McAllen, Texas contributed to this report.