Two of the themes President Donald Trump is expected to hammer during his campaign for re-election are at odds as his administration considers whether to offer new deportation protections to tens of thousands of Venezuelans in the U.S. amid ongoing unrest in the South American country.
Officials are hoping the situation will improve enough in the coming weeks to avoid having to decide whether to grant Temporary Protected Status or other protections to more than 70,000 Venezuelans in the U.S., as many in Congress are demanding, according to seven people familiar with the discussions.
While officials are taking a wait-and-see approach for now, the issue has exposed divisions within the administration. The U.S. special envoy to Venezuela and some at the State Department and Department of Homeland Security are in favor of granting protected status, but others at DHS and the White House oppose such a move because it would conflict with the administration's hard-line immigration policies, according to some of the people familiar with the discussions.
The Trump administration has tried to eliminate deportation protections for thousands of people from countries in South America, Asia and Africa who had previously been eligible as part of a larger crackdown on illegal and legal immigration.
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The discussion, which comes as Trump prepares for a tough re-election fight, puts at odds two themes expected to play starring roles in the 2020 race: Trump's tough-on-immigration stance and his desire to highlight the plight of Venezuelans under a socialist government as he tries to paint Democrats as radical leftists who will lead the U.S. down the same path.
Some administration officials have been looking for an alternative to TPS, arguing the statute is the wrong mechanism to use for Venezuela because it has typically been invoked for countries facing natural disasters or armed conflicts.
In the meantime, administration officials appear to be unified in holding off on a decision, hoping the situation in Venezuela will improve.
National security adviser John Bolton told CNN earlier this month that if opposition leader Juan Guaido becomes interim president and new elections are held, "we wouldn't need to grant TPS status. So, I would rather focus on getting the transformation in Venezuela and getting them back on the road to stability."
Debate within the administration has been driven by officials on two sides: those who believe the U.S. must do something to assist Venezuelans in the United States who would face hardship, prosecution or violence should they be forced to return home now and those who insist the government must hold to the strict immigration standards that the president has imposed.
Elliott Abrams, the special envoy for Venezuela, has argued that conditions in the country are so bad that deportations should not occur at least until the situation improves, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to outline private conversations. But his calls for a way to help Venezuelans have stalled over objections from immigration foes who maintain that any concession would contradict the president's intention to tighten the rules, the officials said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The president and his aides have long believed immigration was a key motivating factor in the 2016 presidential race and intend to lean hard on the issue again in 2020. But the president has also offered Venezuela as a cautionary tale as he tries to paint Democrats as far-left socialists.
"They want to take away your good health care, and essentially use socialism to turn America into Venezuela," Trump told his crowds at rallies ahead of the midterm elections last year.
The issue is an especially charged one in the politically important state of Florida, where lawmakers like Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have been urging Trump to extend protected status. Rubio was among two dozen senators who sent a letter to Trump last week urging him to him to grant Venezuelans protections.
Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who has introduced legislation that would do the same, said Tuesday he remained optimistic even as he took note of the administration's attempts to strip TPS from citizens of countries including Honduras, El Salvador, Sudan, Haiti, Nicaragua and Nepal.
While some administration officials "may feel that it is contrary" to Trump's past decisions, Menendez said, Venezuela "falls directly in line with what TPS was meant for."
But Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that while there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for the move, it poses political risks for Trump by leaving him "open to accusations of applying a double standard that favors Venezuelans over, say, Central Americans."
Doris Meissner of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute said the statute has been applied flexibly in the past and a case could be made to include Venezuelans, but that "would be quite a flip-flop" for Trump.
Around 437,000 immigrants from 10 countries have been granted temporary protected status, which was created in 1990. But many of the countries have stayed on the list for years, leading critics to complain that the program has turned into default amnesty.
A federal judge has blocked the administration's attempts to end the program for citizens of Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador. People from other countries have also sued; those cases are pending.
Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Susannah George contributed to this report.