MIAMI – Maria Ortiz left Venezuela almost four years ago when she realized her job opportunities were nonexistent. Freshly graduated from college with a degree in petroleum engineering, she boarded a plane and traded her dream of a professional career for a better quality of life in the U.S.
Ortiz has since worked in restaurant kitchens in Maryland, earning enough to raise her 2-year-old daughter and make ends meet even during the pandemic. But their life may change drastically this year after the decision of President Joe Biden’s administration to offer temporary legal residency to several hundred thousand Venezuelans who fled their country’s humanitarian crisis.
“I am very happy to know that I will have legal stability, that I will have the opportunity to choose a good job,” said Ortiz, 25, who hopes she can find a job that matches her engineering skills. “Feeling the relief of knowing that I will be here, that they will not take me out of the country, that relief of knowing that I will be truly safe causes me great emotion.”
The U.S. government on Monday announced it would grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans already in the United States, allowing an estimated 320,000 people to apply to legally live and work in the country for 18 months. The move, which former President Donald Trump had resisted, was welcomed by immigrants, advocates and lawmakers, some of whom had introduced a measure with the same goal.
People must show continued residency and pass a criminal background check to qualify for the status. Venezuelans must have arrived by Monday to be considered for the program. Those eligible to apply include people who have a pending asylum case and those whose asylum claim was rejected but remain in the U.S.
Venezuela is mired in a deep political, social and economic crisis attributed to plummeting oil prices and two decades of mismanagement by socialist governments. Millions live in poverty amid high food prices, medication shortages, low wages and four-digit inflation. That has pushed about 5 million Venezuelans to flee in the past few years, mostly to neighboring South American countries, but many have settled in South Florida.
Many of those who immigrated to the U.S. have applied for asylum, but escaping a humanitarian crisis does not automatically result in the approval of an asylum case in the U.S. More than 50% of asylum applications from Venezuelans have been rejected over the past few years, said Michael Kagan, law professor and director of the immigration clinic at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
“As long as someone does not have a significant criminal record, it’s a pretty straightforward application, and I would expect nearly all to be approved,” Kagan said referring to the temporary protected status program.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday urged Biden’s government to expand eligibility to Venezuelan asylum seekers who were sent to Mexico to await the processing of their case under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as Remain in Mexico. The international monitoring group said about 2,700 Venezuelans are in that position.
“The Biden administration should end summary expulsions at the US border and establish a waiver to the TPS physical presence requirement so that Venezuelan asylum seekers who were prevented from entering the United States will also be eligible,” Bill Frelick, the group’s director of refugee and migrant rights, said in a statement.
Gustavo Acosta cheered loudly upon learning that the Biden government had ordered temporary protected status for Venezuelans. He arrived in the U.S. in March 2019, illegally crossing the border with Mexico and turning himself over to authorities at a port of entry. He was detained for 13 months and applied for asylum but was denied and ordered deported.
“It helps us and gives us great relief,” Acosta, a hairstylist, said. “I can breathe a little easier ... I was very afraid of being deported.”
With the temporary protection, he hopes to get a job that allows him to support himself. For now, Acosta, 36, lives in a small studio apartment in Queens, New York, and receives financial assistance from the state government.
“It’s going to be a 360-degree change,” said Acosta, whose sister is a refugee in Colombia and parents and grandmother are in Maracaibo, Venezuela.
On his final day in office, Trump issued an order deferring deportation for 18 months for more than 145,000 Venezuelans. Republicans in recent days had urged the Biden administration to formalize Trump’s executive order, but the temporary protected status issued Monday provides immigrants a more formal status that cannot be as easily reversed.
Ruth Valle became stranded in Miami just over a year ago. She had taken a trip on a tourist visa, and she wanted to buy clothes, cosmetics and food to resell them later in Venezuela and make some extra money to subsist. But flights were canceled due to the pandemic in March 2020, two days before hers was scheduled to depart, and she's remained in South Florida since then.
Due to the situation that her home country is going through, she decided to request asylum, and although her process has not yet finished, she will now request temporary protected status and hopes to see again her 15-year-old daughter, who stayed in Venezuela with her grandmother.
“It’s a way to make sure we’re legal,” Valle, 39, said, referring to the Biden administration's decision. “I feel happy, not only for me but for all the Venezuelans who are here.”
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.