Marco Rubio has spent months pushing the White House to expand a temporary program that would allow Venezuelans who have fled Nicolás Maduro’s regime to stay in the United States, according to a previously unpublished letter from Rubio to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
The letter, dated March 20, asks Tillerson and Kelly to “review the existing conditions in Venezuela and consider granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to eligible Venezuelan nationals residing in the United States.”
“In light of the ongoing political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, it is not in the best interests of the United States to deport non-violent Venezuelan nationals back to the country at this time,” the letter reads.
President Donald Trump, who continues to talk tough on immigration, hasn’t indicated that he is open to extending the program to another country.
Rubio’s position puts him in line with an increasing number of Venezuelan activists and Florida politicians from both parties who want to expand the temporary program, which currently applies to foreign nationals from 10 countries already in the United States.
Last week, Democrats Bill Nelson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, along with Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, voiced their support for the program, which would not be a permanent solution for Venezuelans seeking to stay in the United States.
In recent days, José Javier Rodríguez, a Democratic state senator and congressional candidate, along with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham, have also called for expanding the TPS program.
“Temporary Protected Status will allow Venzeuelans fleeing violence to live and work here legally and contribute to our state’s diverse communities until it is safe for them to return home,” Graham said in a statement.
Rubio has positioned himself as an important voice on Venezuela under Trump as the State Department deals with a downsized staff. He set up a meeting between Trump and Lilian Tintori, a human-rights activist married to jailed Venezuelan dissident Leopoldo Lopez, and Rubio’s vocal criticism of Maduro and his associates led to the Florida senator getting protection from a security detail.
Rubio and Nelson hinted as far back as 2014 that they would consider the possibility of TPS for Venezuelans, but the issue has drawn increased attention after Maduro held a constituent assembly vote with the power to redraw the nation’s constitution.
“A few years ago we talked briefly and I worked with others to try and bring attention to the TPS issue,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner José “Pepe” Diaz, who represents Doral, the area with the highest concentration of Venezuelans in the United States.
Diaz said last week he was talking with Rubio, when Vice President Mike Pence came to Doral to speak on the situation in Venezuela, about a letter from the Miami-Dade Commission to the White House expressing support for TPS.
Pence “literally said ‘give me the letter’ and he folded it and put it in his pocket when he was in Miami last week,” Diaz said. “With Rubio coming out strong, Nelson coming out strong.... [TPS] makes sense. What are these people going back to?”
The TPS program is designed to help individuals affected by “ongoing armed conflict, an environmental disaster, an epidemic or other extraordinary and temporary conditions,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. More than 120 people have died in anti-government protests in Venezuela in recent months and rapid inflation and corruption have led to widespread hunger and poor medical care throughout the country.
A petition to the White House calling for TPS for Venezuelans has received more than 125,000 signatures. Any petition with more than 100,000 signatures requires a formal response from the White House.
This story was updated to show that Diaz handed Pence a letter while he was in Doral last week.