Venezuelans call Biden's humanitarian parole their ‘best hope’ — but ‘the waiting hurts’
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Venezuelans were the first to receive Biden's humanitarian parole, so their experience has become a bellwether — and a reminder that the administration may have underestimated demand. Some migrants call it a "miracle" ticket out of their awful crisis. But others, growing impatient as their applications linger for months, are setting out on the dangerous journey to the southern border — exactly what the program was designed to prevent.
Everywhere she goes these days, Nia is practicing English. On a recent visit to a Starbucks in Doral, the 7-year-old was determined to kibitz with the cashier as she bought a treat her family could rarely find or afford back in Venezuela: chocolate milk.
As Nia bid the man a slow but correctly pronounced “goodbye,” her mother, Meliana Bruguera, beamed down at her while holding Nia’s infant brother, Rurik.
The three of them arrived here from Valencia, Venezuela, in May, after being approved for the Biden Administration’s new humanitarian parole for migrants fleeing economic collapse and dictatorships in Latin America. The program lets them come to live and work in the U.S. for two years, if they have a sponsor here to support them — and if they stay at home to apply for it and stay away from the U.S.’s overwhelmed southern border.
Bruguera, who was a lawyer back in Valencia, insists the need for the parole is real. It’s a struggle, she says, “just to stay alive” in Venezuela while confronting both its humanitarian crisis — the worst in modern South American history — and its brutally authoritarian socialist regime.
“If it’s not the scarcity of food, it’s the political persecution," especially for lawyers like her who are not tied to the regime and don’t play ball with official corruption, Bruguera told WLRN in Spanish.
Bruguera also wanted to avoid the perilous trip so many Venezuelans make on foot, usually through the dense and dangerous Darién Gap jungle between Colombia and Panama, to get to the U.S. — especially after she saw the menacing conditions shown in social media posts from friends who had made that journey.
“I watched the videos,” she said. “It’s horrible. Horrible.”
Even so, back in October of 2022, Bruguera and her husband were just about to take their own family through the Darién to the U.S. — until, that month, the announcement came that Venezuelans would be the first invited to apply for the Biden parole. It was the start of a project meant to stop Venezuelans and other migrants from flooding the U.S. southern border — a crisis that just keeps bringing down Biden’s approval ratings.
“We saw the news and — oof! — I could breathe again, knowing I wouldn’t have to take my children to the U.S. on foot,” Bruguera said, as her eyes welled up with tears.
“I still cry thinking about that relief I felt when I heard it.”
Bruguera signed up for the parole within weeks of its launch. She secured a sponsor — a friend who lives in Doral. And she hoped to be in the U.S. by Christmas.
But it didn’t happen.
In January, the parole program was expanded to include Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans — and started accepting a total of 30,000 applicants per month, across the four nationalities. Burguera considered herself chronologically way ahead in the line. But her approval didn’t come until the end of April.
Now she said she’s still waiting for her husband, who finally secured a sponsor last spring and applied for the parole on May 4.
“The program is the best hope we’ve had in years,” she said. "But the waiting hurts."
Bruguera’s pain is a sign the humanitarian parole program has been so popular, the Biden administration may have significantly underestimated the demand for it.
“Just look at the four nationalities that qualify for this humanitarian parole and their country conditions,” said Venezuelan-American immigration attorney John De la Vega of Miami.
“I knew it,” he said. “I knew it was going to be millions of applications, and they were not going to be able to adjudicate all this.”
Almost 270,000 migrants had received the parole by the end of September — more than a quarter of them Venezuelans. More than 240,000 of them have arrived in the U.S.
But De la Vega, citing recent media reports based on Biden Administration documents, points out that may be only about 10% of those who’ve actually applied for it. And because only half the applications are being processed chronologically — that leaves many early applicants feeling distressed. The other half are taken randomly, to make it more fair.
“So we have Venezuelans since October of 2022 — there’s people who applied within 48 hours of this program starting — and they have not received an answer,” De la Vega said.
“In theory, this parole program is a good solution. The problem is that it’s just massive logistics, and I don’t think they have the amount of officers to be able to do it.”
The Biden parole is the best hope we’ve had in years. But the waiting hurts.Meliana Bruguera
The Department of Homeland Security points out it is meeting its monthly target of approving 30,000 applicants. But it says it needs more resources to expand that goal.
A U.S. official told WLRN: “Our immigration system is outdated [and] we need Congress to act in modernizing [it] to ensure [we] can efficiently support the demand.”
In the meantime, Venezuelans have been returning to the Darién jungle. In fact, Panamanian authorities say most of the migrants making that trek the past few months have been Venezuelans — and one big reason, according to Venezuelans like a woman named Norbelis, is sheer impatience with the Biden parole.
“It felt as though the brakes had been put on my [parole] application,” Norbelis, who asked us not to use her full name because her immigration status is pending, said in Spanish.
'Go out and get the miracle'
Norbelis was also among the first last year to sign up for the U.S. humanitarian parole. But eventually, she said, she gave up waiting for an answer. In May, the single mother left her teenage son behind and set out alone for the U.S. by land — through, not surprisingly, the Darién jungle. She called her four days in that zone “some of the hardest of my life — like confronting death, literally.”
At one point, Norbelis recalled, she slipped climbing a steep, rain-slicked jungle hill and almost fell to that death. She made it to the U.S. southern border this past summer and was later let into the country temporarily as an asylum seeker.
The former bank accounts manager now cleans hotel rooms in Tampa — without a work permit.
Norbelis argues thousands of Venezuelans who sought the parole but haven’t received a response are doing what she did — the very thing the program was meant to discourage.
"They’re saying, 'I can’t keep waiting for the miracle of a better life — I have to go out and get the miracle,'" she said.
Venezuelan-American community leaders are urging the Biden administration to find faster ways to process applications that have sat on the shelf the longest.
“We have been in contact asking them to see what they can do about this backlog, especially the ones that are waiting since last year,” said Adelys Ferro, of Weston, who heads the nonprofit Venezuelan-American Caucus.
But expats who work directly with the most recent Venezuelan migrant arrivals in South Florida say that’s unlikely to ameliorate the situation.
“As long as the situation keeps getting worse in Venezuela — and it is — there’s never really going to be enough the Biden Administration can do to keep Venezuelans pouring out of the country in this direction,” said Patricia Andrade, who heads the migrant aid nonprofit Raíces Venezolanas Miami in Doral.
Indeed, immigration experts now estimate some 7 million Venezuelans, more than a fifth of their country’s population, have fled their country in less than a decade — making their exodus even larger than the refugee flights from war-torn Syria and Ukraine.
“As long as the situation keeps getting worse in Venezuela — and it is — there’s never really going to be enough the Biden Administration can do to keep Venezuelans pouring out of the country in this direction."Patricia Andrade, of Raíces Venezolanas Miami in Doral.
That’s the main reason Biden last month extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) — which protects migrants already in the United States from severely crisis-torn countries from being deported — to Venezuelans who have been in the U.S. since before July 31. Under the President’s new Venezuelan TPS directive, Norbelis now has a legal path to staying in the U.S. temporarily even if she didn’t wait for the response to her parole application.
But this month the Biden administration seemed to concede Andrade’s point when it struck a deal with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to have Venezuela start receiving deportation flights of Venezuelans from the U.S. — as a further way to reduce the swell of of Venezuelans at the border. On the same day the administration made that announcement, it also admitted — not coincidentally — it was allowing a large stretch of border wall to be built because Congress had already allocated the funds for it.
At the same time, the parole program faces another threat, this time by U.S. Attorneys general from more than 20 Republican-led states, including Florida, who have sued to shut it down, calling it an unlawful executive action. A federal judge in Texas is now hearing arguments.
Immigration experts like De la Vega, the Miami attorney, believe the judge will ultimately rule in Biden’s favor. But he fears that won’t solve the underlying problems.
“I think it will survive,” De la Vega says.
“However, if the government doesn’t improve their methods to adjudicate these humanitarian paroles — I don’t want this to be another immigration disaster for this administration.”
Biden administration officials insist the reason they had to create the humanitarian parole program in the first place was that immigration in the U.S. was already a disaster.
The stakes are high for migrants desperate to escape Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela — and for President Biden's re-election campaign. In the WLRN News series Waiting for America, we take a deep look at a humanitarian parole program for people from crisis-torn countries in Latin America and the Caribbean — a key Biden administration immigration policy — one year later.