(Corrects quote attribution in 14th paragraph of Oct. 14 story.)
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President Joe Biden faces pressure to expand sponsor-based immigration pathways to the US after launching a new option this week for Venezuelans fleeing turmoil.
Biden will allow as many as 24,000 Venezuelans to partner with US-based groups or individuals who can support them to live and work in the US for two years as Venezuela endures authoritarian rule and economic collapse. The administration established a similar program for Ukrainians earlier this year.
Immigrants’ rights advocates, while outraged over border restrictions the Department of Homeland Security is pairing with the Venezuelan program, largely praised the sponsor-based approach and called for a swift expansion to other communities.
“We applaud and welcome the protection being given for the Venezuelans who are fleeing extreme hardship, but at the same time, the U4U is supposed to be a model for all people fleeing persecution,” Haitian Bridge Alliance President Guerline Jozef said, referring to the sponsor-based pathway Uniting for Ukraine.
The Biden administration had earlier considered launching a sponsorship model for Haitians, Cubans, and Nicaraguans along with Venezuelans, the Los Angeles Times reported. A senior official on Wednesday said the administration may consider broader eligibility if the program for Venezuelans goes well.
All four countries are experiencing dire political and economic upheaval, said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the citizens, the victims of those failing states, are leaving,” he said. “If we give them a legal avenue, they will take it.”
‘Capacity to Welcome’
The US turned to private citizens to sponsor immigrants in decades past, but only recently resumed using the model to quickly shelter tens of thousands Ukrainians after Russia invaded their country.
The US has accepted 67,000 Ukrainians since late March by matching them with sponsors, according to figures provided by DHS on Thursday. Another 37,000 have been approved to move to the US temporarily in the coming months.
The Venezuelan program marks the first time Biden has used the same pathway for individuals from the Western Hemisphere.
“This is a test case” for matching American sponsors with other South American migrants that need shelter, said Tyler Moran, a former top immigration aide to Biden.
Venezuelans have approached the US-Mexico border in huge numbers in recent months; US authorities have encountered more than 15,000 Venezuelans at the border on average per month in the past year, up from 127 per month in the five years before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The sponsor model allows US-based nonprofits, businesses, and individuals with lawful status to assist Venezuelans. The administration plans to work with organizations to identify potential sponsors for Venezuelans who may not have family ties in the US, a senior official said Wednesday.
“Americans have shown the capacity to welcome, support, and help integrate people into our communities,” said Anya McMurray, president of Welcome.US, a group that will help match Americans with Venezuelans in need of sponsorship. “We’re not concerned” that there won’t be enough sponsors, she said.
Democrats in Congress have pushed for the administration to consider broader use of sponsor-based pathways to address other immigrant populations and deter unlawful border crossing attempts. Some conservatives would rather have the US tighten border security without adding any new legal pathways, casting doubt on their deterrent effect.
Venezuelans who attempt to cross the US-Mexico border instead of applying for sponsorship and later flying to the US will be turned back to Mexico under a pandemic-related restriction known as Title 42. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) called the pairing of the sponsorship program with the border restrictions “a half-baked, unworkable promise that will only exacerbate ongoing crises, including at our southern border.”
The private sponsorship model has particular appeal amid refugee processing backlogs and congressional inaction on immigration legislation.
“There’s a lot of promise there that can be expanded and altered to help other populations,” said Matthew La Corte, government affairs manager for immigration policy at the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, which has advocated for the sponsorship approach.
AILA’s Johnson said the model’s value “is that it’s in the administration’s control in terms of creating a legal channel of immigration that can and is shown to address irregular migration flows.”
Jozef of Haitian Bridge Alliance said she’ll continue pressing the Biden administration to open a sponsor-based pathway for Haitians, who approached the US-Mexico border en masse last year and are now increasingly trying to reach the US by water. The US Coast Guard has apprehended more than 7,000 Haitian migrants at sea this year, compared with 1,500 or less in previous years.
“We understand this is a very complex situation that the Biden administration is facing, but at the same time we know that we have proven that we are able to receive people with dignity,” Jozef said.