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U.S. Officials Are Split Over How To Handle Venezuelans Seeking Asylum


As the struggle for power in Venezuela continues to play out, here's a number to consider - 70,000. That is the estimated number of Venezuelans seeking refuge here in the U.S. And within the Trump administration, there's a struggle over what should happen to them.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on an unfolding debate over whether to grant Venezuelans living in the U.S. protection from deportation and how that fits, or doesn't, with the U.S. goal of ending the reign of President Nicolas Maduro.

Jessica Donati covers the State Department for The Wall Street Journal. She's one of the reporters on the story, and she's here now. Welcome.

JESSICA DONATI: Hi. Thank you.

KELLY: So this number - 70,000 Venezuelans - I confess I was surprised that it is so high. What does that number - what is it capturing? This is people who came, overstayed their visas? People who came here illegally in the first place? Who is it?

DONATI: So this is the number that's come out of the State Department. They provided it to Congress in testimony saying that there were just over 70,000. There aren't details, but one can assume that many of them are people who've overstayed their visas, people who've managed to cross over. And it's worth noting that it's much smaller than the number of Venezuelans that are in Brazil and in Colombia because those are in the millions.

KELLY: One of the options under discussion for what to do with these people is to grant temporary protected status - TPS. Lay out for me, what's the argument for doing that?

DONATI: Aside from the humanitarian argument, which is there are deteriorating conditions in Venezuela and it's not safe for people to return, there's also a desire within the administration to keep up momentum behind the opposition and get people out into the streets. And so this is seen as a boost to the opposition because it would show that the U.S. is behind Venezuelans, understands their plight.

On the other side, the concern is that if you do this, then you send the message to Maduro that you're prepared to be in it for the long run. And the messaging that the administration has said is that Maduro is going to be very soon on his way out.

And then there is the other question of this would be contradictory, when the signature move of the administration has been to fight against these kind of protections.

KELLY: So it sounds, to tease out one of the arguments you were making against granting TPS - is that it could open the administration to charges of double standard, of hypocrisy, since it's trying to end temporary protected status for people from other countries.

DONATI: That's exactly what some of the opponents are arguing. We're fighting TPS in court against all these other countries, so we're going to be accused of being inconsistent in our approach to immigration.

KELLY: We should note this debate is not exactly playing out publicly. You at the Journal got your hands on some emails?

DONATI: Yeah. It's not playing out publicly, although Abrams has said...

KELLY: You're talking about Elliott Abrams, the U.S. envoy to Venezuela.

DONATI: Yes. So Elliott Abrams has said that this is going to happen, a consensus will soon be reached. There's a lot of pressure in Congress, both from Republicans and Democrats. And he's promised a quick solution. If you go to the NSC, their messaging is, well, we're treading with caution, no decision yet. Secretary Pompeo has said, well, we're looking at it, but nothing imminent.

KELLY: And the urgency is in terms of trying to influence events on the ground in Venezuela. There's no time frame constricting the decision here in the U.S. Is that right?

DONATI: I mean, the sense is that the longer Maduro remains in power, the harder it will be to get Venezuelans to rise up while they're hungry and while they don't have work or any source of income. And so in order to do that, they want to keep the pressure up, and they don't want to risk losing it and then risk stepping in for years of standoff between the two sides, which wouldn't be useful to anybody.

KELLY: Jessica Donati - she covers the State Department for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you.

DONATI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.