The Biden administration said late Wednesday that it would allow hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans already in the United States to live and work legally in the country for 18 months.
The decision followed intense advocacy by top New York Democrats, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams and party leaders in Congress. It will affect about 472,000 Venezuelans who arrived in the country before July 31, temporarily protecting them from removal and waiving a monthslong waiting period for them to seek employment authorization.
In an unusual break with a president of their party, the New York Democrats had argued that the city’s social safety net would tear under the weight of more than 110,000 recently arrived migrants unless they were allowed to work and support themselves more quickly.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said that he made the decision because conditions in Venezuela “prevent their safe return” but stressed that immigrants who had entered the country since August were not protected and would be “removed when they are found to not have a legal basis to stay.”
In a joint statement, Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the top Democrats in the Senate and House, said that the Homeland Security Department had estimated that roughly half the migrants currently living in New York are Venezuelans who would be affected by the decision. They called it a “welcome step forward.”
“As a result of this decision, immigrants will be temporarily allowed to work, fill needed jobs and support their families while awaiting an asylum determination,” they wrote. “The decision will also substantially reduce the cost to New York taxpayers with respect to the sheltering of asylum seekers.”
Democratic leaders elsewhere, including in Illinois, have also been calling for help, and praised the move on Wednesday evening.
As the number of migrants rises in northern cities, straining budgets and space, Democratic candidates and political strategists have been increasingly worried the crisis could hurt their standing among voters. Republicans in New York, for instance, where control of the House could be decided next year, have wasted little time in stoking a sense of chaos and Democratic discord in races for key swing seats.
The administration’s decision, which was part of a raft of actions to deal with the crush of migrants trying to cross the border, was announced on Wednesday as Mr. Biden was leaving New York City after a four-day visit for the United Nations General Assembly.
The president largely steered around the city’s migrant crisis in his public schedule. But he huddled privately with Ms. Hochul to discuss the matter Tuesday night during a star-studded reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On Wednesday, she called special status for Venezuelans “one of our top priorities.”
The administration had already extended humanitarian protections to close to 250,000 Venezuelans who had arrived in the country by March 2021. But officials had been wary that extending it more broadly could create a new, longer-term incentive for migrants to attempt to cross into the country.
Mr. Adams, who has been the most forceful Democrat pushing the Biden administration to help New York deal with the mounting toll, thanked the White House on Wednesday. But he immediately reiterated calls for the Biden administration to extend the special protections of tens of thousands of migrants from other nations.
The city is currently providing shelter to 60,000 asylum seekers. Mr. Adams has estimated that housing, along with education and health care, could cost the city $12 billion in the coming years. Allowing more of those migrants to begin working and earning money could help ease some of the burden on the system, while generating new tax revenue.
The White House has taken other steps to help New York City. The Biden administration helped secure $140 million in emergency funds for New York and has requested more from Congress. Dozens of federal officials are also on the ground in New York City trying to help identify other migrants who were already eligible for employment but had yet to file applications.
White House officials argue that only Congress can meaningfully overhaul the nation’s immigration system, altering the flow of migrants and changing the rules around who can work when. Privately, they have made little secret of their distaste for Mr. Adams’s outspoken criticism, and other Democrats have pointed out that the mayor’s comments are now being quoted extensively by Republicans to attack Mr. Biden.