The US will allow potentially tens of thousands of Venezuelans to seek refuge, in a significant policy shift from the former Trump era, officials said on March 8.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is being offered to people who fled political repression and economic chaos in the once wealthy South American country.

A senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration, who asked not to be named, told reporters that “over 300,000 individuals are estimated to be eligible”.

The Venezuelans being considered are all already in the US but will now be able to escape possible deportation, with stays granted through September next year.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said: “The living conditions in Venezuela reveal a country in turmoil, unable to protect its own citizens.

“It is in times of extraordinary and temporary circumstances like these that the United States steps forward to support eligible Venezuelan nationals already present here, while their home country seeks to right itself out of the current crises.”

Former US President Donald Trump – despite backing a push to topple far-left Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro – denied Venezuelans the protected status as part of his hardline crackdown on immigration and refugee rules.

On taking office in January, Biden immediately set about reversing what he says were Trump’s inhumane border policies.

‘Not safe’ in Venezuela

The Democrat has come under pressure from Republicans for what they say is a lax attitude that will lead to uncontrollable numbers of illegal immigrants.

But the administration is pushing back, underlining that the doors are not being opened to new arrivals – merely for those already here, who will now be eligible for the 18-month stay.

This is “due to the extraordinary temporary conditions in Venezuela” and because “it is not safe for Venezuelans to return”, the senior administration official said.

TPS allows people fleeing unrest or natural disaster to remain and work for a limited time.

Andres Gonzalez, who arrived in Miami from Venezuela four years ago, was relieved when he heard about the TPS decision.

Gonzalez, 24, applied for asylum, but is not sure it will be granted and is still waiting for his interview appointment.

“The TPS is great because all the people like me who are seeking asylum or who are arriving and have not applied for asylum, or anything like that, do not have to worry that they will be thrown out, that they will be deported, that they will be told no, because they have 18 months to be able to resolve it,” Gonzalez, who works at a Venezuelan restaurant in downtown Miami, said.

Those applying will undergo background checks and get 180 days to put in their applications. They must provide proof they were here on or before March 8 and pay a $50 application fee and $85 biometrics fee.

A further $410 fee is required for work permits.

In Caracas, opposition leader Juan Guaido said that “Venezuelans who have been forced to flee to the United States for fear of losing their lives can now sleep more peacefully”.