Because the protection is only a temporary status and doesn’t offer a path to citizenship, it puts recipients in a legal gray zone.
Experts have compared the conditions in Venezuela to the conditions of a war zone. The country’s murder rate, which remains the highest in the hemisphere, dropped in 2018—but not because of stabilizing conditions. Instead, there are indications that would-be murderers have been unable to afford bullets, and robbery has become unprofitable in a country where inflation rates have rendered the currency essentially useless. More than three million Venezuelans have fled, putting the exodus on track to become one of the most staggering mass movements of the decade, alongside the Syrian refugee crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of those fleeing Venezuela have come to the United States. Though Venezuelans who arrive on the U.S. border must apply for asylum on a case-by-case basis (the U.S. has no system in place to recognize all people fleeing from a certain country as refugees), President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that his administration was considering granting “Temporary Protected Status” to Venezuelans currently residing in the U.S.
TPS, a legal designation granted by the executive branch, is relatively simple: It offers a reprieve to foreigners currently in the U.S. if their home country falls into crisis. For instance, instead of forcing Haitian citizens who were in the U.S. during Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake to return to their country’s dire conditions, the Obama administration granted them TPS status. This gave them temporary legal status and work permits in the U.S.
What’s more complicated is what happens when a presidential administration decides to cancel the protected status. Last year, Trump moved to end TPS for Haitians, with the idea that the country had sufficiently recovered from the earthquake. Two problems immediately appeared. First, more than 300,000 Haitians with TPS had lived in the U.S. for almost eight years; their lives, work, and family were in this country. Second, there was serious debate over whether Haiti was truly a safe place for them to return. (Political turmoil continues in the island nation, which is the poorest country in the hemisphere.)
In 2018, Trump also moved to cancel TPS status for people from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Sudan, Honduras, and Nepal. In the case of citizens from Honduras and Nicaragua, there were people who had been living in the country for over two decades, after the two countries were granted TPS following Hurricane Mitch in 1998. A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction blocking the Trump administration from revoking TPS in Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Sudan, but the administration has continued to push to end the program.
What would this mean for the Venezuelans who might be granted TPS? In the past, Republican and Democratic administrations—namely George W. Bush and Barack Obama‘s administrations—have renewed TPS without much of a hitch. But because TPS is only a temporary status, and doesn’t offer a path to citizenship, it puts recipients in a legal gray zone. And as Haitians and others found out last year, the lives they’ve built in the U.S. could be suddenly uprooted by executive decree. The question then comes down to how long we can expect the Venezuelan crisis to persist: How long will Venezuelans in this country need protected status? When will they be able to return to their home country?
Venezuela’s economic and political decay currently has no end in sight, which means potential TPS recipients could spend years—even decades—building lives in this country without any guarantee that they could choose to stay. (In contrast, Venezuelans who are granted refugee status have legal permanent residency and a path to citizenship.) TPS status would certainly come as a relief for Venezuelans with temporary visas or undocumented status, but it might not be a long-term solution.