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Venezuelans Granted Protected Status In U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Biden administration is taking a big step to allow Venezuelans fleeing conditions in their homeland to remain here in the U.S. even if they're in the country illegally. A humanitarian and economic crisis has caused millions of people to flee the socialist nation in South America. And the administration announced this afternoon that more than 300,000 Venezuelans currently undocumented living in the U.S. will be granted what is known as Temporary Protected Status, TPS, for 18 months. Here with more is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hey there.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What else do we know about how this would work?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, temporary protected status is granted to those from countries ravaged by natural disasters or war and allows those here to live and work in the United States until conditions improve back home. Now, despite having some of the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has actually fallen into a life-threatening economic and humanitarian crisis. More than 5 million Venezuelans have fled the country in search of food, medicine and shelter. And that's why Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is granting TPS to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelans provided they are already in the country now. The Biden administration says the conditions prevent those Venezuelans from returning home safely.

KELLY: This is a dramatic shift in policy from the previous administration. President Trump and his team, of course, were focused on reducing immigration. Is this a surprise from the Biden administration?

ORDOÑEZ: I would not call it a surprise. Biden is, you know, essentially carrying out a promise he made on the campaign trail to shield these Venezuelans from deportation. But it is a big change. For much of the last four years, as you know, the Trump administration sought to tighten immigration. They worked to terminate this program from immigrants from countries like El Salvador and Honduras and Haiti but was hampered by the courts. But Benjamin Gedan, who was the top adviser on Venezuela in the Obama White House - he said there has long been bipartisan support for permitting Venezuelans in the United States to remain in the country legally.

BENJAMIN GEDAN: Venezuela is a failed state in every single measure. There's simply not enough food to go around. Hospitals had collapsed before the pandemic. You have a repressive dictatorship and extraordinary levels of violence in the street. You have pro-government militias attacking protesters. It's just inhumane to send people back into those conditions.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Mary Louise, and as we have reported, there has also been, you know, great international support, especially in the region from places like Colombia.

KELLY: I have to ask about one other factor, which is politics. The former President Trump was very popular with Venezuelans in South Florida, a place where President Biden struggled in the 2020 election. Are politics involved in this decision?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I think there's no doubt about it. It's why, you know, President Biden made this promise. Democrats did not do as well as they hoped in South Florida, and part of that was because how successful Trump was with Venezuelan voters. Fernand Amandi - he's a Miami-based Democratic political strategist and pollster. He said this move could actually open up a new relationship for Biden with an electorate that largely supported Trump in 2020.

FERNAND AMANDI: This was a group of Venezuelan American voters. You know, Trump really went after them, romanced them during the four years of his presidency but couldn't quite close the deal on offering permanent TPS, which is what the community desperately was looking for. Biden did make good on that promise.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, former President Trump - you know, he did issue very strong sanctions against the Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. But Trump didn't grant them TPS, and as Fernand was just noting, it's something Venezuelan American voters really wanted. So this could have an impact on the politics in a very important state and obviously...

KELLY: OK.

ORDOÑEZ: ...A huge impact on the lives of these Venezuelans.

KELLY: Thank you, Franco. NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.