The Biden administration rolled out a major strategic shift in border policy Wednesday, granting more than 400,000 Venezuelans work permits while bolstering overstretched border enforcement agencies with military assistance.
The moves respond to pressure from Democrats and immigrant advocates, but also to quickly changing dynamics on the migrant trail toward the U.S.-Mexico border, with hundreds of thousands of migrants already traveling north.
By making all Venezuelans who arrived before July 31 eligible to work and live in the country temporarily, the Biden administration seeks to ease pressure on Democratic-controlled states and cities, whose shelter systems were overwhelmed with new arrivals unable to sustain themselves.
And deploying 800 troops to the border to assist Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Border Patrol will free up manpower for those agencies to process migrants at and between ports of entry.
In recent weeks, CBP has at times closed major international bridges and railway crossings and redirected their personnel to help Border Patrol take migrants into custody.
On Wednesday, CBP pulled its staff from an Eagle Pass, Texas, bridge and at the railway crossing there.
“In response to this influx in encounters, we will continue to surge all available resources to expeditiously and safely process migrants. We will maximize consequences against those without a legal basis to remain in the United States,” read a CBP statement on the Eagle Pass closures.
But many Democrats have been pleading with the administration to turn its focus to work permits.
The decision to redesignate Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) tripled overnight the population of Venezuelans who are eligible for work permits and are deferred from deportation for at least 18 months.
Under TPS, foreign nationals from a designated country present in the United States as of a set date are allowed to remain and work legally, while their country of origin is undergoing a natural or man-made disaster.
“That is the situation that Venezuelans who arrived here on or before July 31 of this year find themselves in. We are accordingly granting them the protection that the law provides,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement Wednesday.
“However, it is critical that Venezuelans understand that those who have arrived here after July 31, 2023 are not eligible for such protection, and instead will be removed when they are found to not have a legal basis to stay.”
The move drew cheers from a wide range of advocacy groups, as well as Democrats who had pushed for work permit expansion, including New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who has very publicly butted heads with the administration over the issue.
“Our administration and our partners across the city have led the calls to ‘Let Them Work,’ so I want to thank @POTUS for hearing our entire coalition, including our hard-working congressional delegation, and taking this important step that will bring hope to the thousands of Venezuelan asylum seekers currently in our care who will now be immediately eligible for Temporary Protected Status,” wrote Adams on X, formerly Twitter.
The announcement also came a day before Biden addresses the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Annual Awards Gala, an event that brings together the top names in Hispanic politics.
Biden’s address is widely expected to set the tone for his pitch to Hispanics ahead of the 2024 elections; the Venezuelan TPS announcement makes it all but certain that he’ll deliver that pitch to a well-primed audience Thursday night.
But the administration is still facing headwinds on immigration, both from the left and from the right.
With migrant arrivals expected to remain consistently high, Republicans will continue to latch onto border numbers as evidence of failed presidential policies.
Administration officials are looking to weather that storm by doubling down on their carrot-and-stick approach, expanding legal pathways for migrants to enter, while touting deportations.
“I think that our model is the right model. And I think it is a success and that model is to provide expanded, safe, orderly and lawful processes and to disincentivize irregular migration to our border and I believe firmly that that is the successful model,” Mayorkas told reporters earlier this month.
“Migration is a very dynamic phenomenon. And we are going to see ebbs and flows and we’re going to see the numbers increase and decrease,” he said, citing human smuggling as a major factor driving those ups and downs.
Migrant smuggling is a growing business for groups who are either associated or pay dues to cartels.
The business has branched out to create a viable path for migrant stretching from South America to the United States, but the factors pushing migrants out of their home countries remain more or less the same.
“It’s the same boom as before Title 42 ended. When the numbers went down in May-June, many of us said migrants and smugglers were just in ‘wait and see mode.’ Well, they waited and saw — and now the lull is over!” said Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America.
On the homefront, the administration will continue to face pressure to speed up other work permits, improve and expand legal pathways for migrants to enter the country, and suspend deportations to certain countries such as Haiti.
And calls are growing for the administration to pull bureaucratic levers to at least make it easier for undocumented immigrants to regularize their status.
Former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who at times was a thorn in the side of the Obama administration for his immigrant advocacy, is coming out of retirement as a senior adviser to CASA, a progressive immigration advocacy group, and ABIC-Action, a business-driven immigration advocacy group.
Gutiérrez, who celebrated the Venezuelan TPS move, will lead a “work permits for all” mobilization with an estimated 5,000 attendees outside the White House in November.
“I am so delighted and happy and overjoyed that Biden is extending protection for Venezuelans. It won’t get him a single additional vote from Cubans, Nicaraguans, or Venezuelans in Florida, but it’s the right thing to do now,” said Gutiérrez.
“Our task is to get him to expand it to other communities, especially millions of Mexicans who have worked and sweated for our country for decades while we celebrate the victory of Venezuelans.”
—Rebecca Beitsch contributed.
This story was updated at 5:20 p.m.