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To lessen border surge, Democrats urge Biden to end Trump’s Venezuela policy

The push from within the president’s own party comes as the administration expects a significant influx of migrants at the southern border once pandemic restrictions expire

A U.S. Border Patrol agent works along the wall separating the United States and Mexico in San Diego. (Eric Thayer for The Washington Post)
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Democrats led by House lawmakers from border states are urging President Biden to put an end to Trump-era sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela that have battered those countries’ economies and contributed to a surge of migrants at the southern border of the United States.

The push from within the president’s own party comes as the Biden administration expects a significant influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border following Thursday’s expiration of Title 42, the health law imposed during the coronavirus pandemic that allowed the U.S. government to quickly expel huge numbers of migrants at the border.

The effort, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), a co-chair of Biden’s reelection campaign, sets up a major clash with another influential Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the hawkish chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has loomed large over Biden’s reluctance to overturn President Donald Trump’s sanctions.

“Experts widely agree that broad-based U.S. sanctions — expanded to an unprecedented level by your predecessor — are a leading contributing factor in the current surge in migration,” the House lawmakers wrote in a letter to Biden obtained by The Washington Post. “We urge you to act swiftly to lift the failed and indiscriminate economic sanctions that were imposed by the prior administration.”

Other signatories of the letter include lawmakers from border states such as Rep. Nanette Barragán of California, Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Greg Casar of Texas as well as members of the party’s progressive wing including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

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The Biden administration has tallied record numbers of illegal entries across the southern border since the president took office, and Biden’s homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said he expects such crossings to go even higher in the coming days as pandemic restrictions end.

“What we are expecting is indeed a surge,” Mayorkas said during a visit to southern Texas last week. He stressed that the situation at the border is “extremely challenging.”

A handful of cities in Texas, including El Paso and Laredo, have declared states of emergency as officials expect an influx of tens of thousands of migrants.

U.S. officials have said huge numbers of migrants at the border come from Venezuela, where Trump’s broad financial and sectoral sanctions have contributed to “difficulties in accessing food, the deterioration of social services and public goods from health care to energy to water; delays in importing essential vaccines; increases in poverty and malnutrition” and other negative outcomes, the letter’s authors argue.

“Ending these indiscriminate economic sanctions regimes is an indispensable part of addressing the migrant crisis,” the authors said.

The Biden administration has said it’s willing to lift some sanctions in exchange for steps taken by Nicolás Maduro’s government such as not banning opposition candidates from running against him but most of the sanctions that Biden inherited from Trump remain in place.

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Trump, led by his former national security adviser John Bolton, made regime change in Venezuela a top priority. At the time, the country’s opposition supported a “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions to force Maduro from power. But now even some opposition members have called for a relaxation of U.S. sanctions to provide relief to Venezuelans and prevent Washington from being scapegoated for the country’s problems.

“If we continue down this path, Venezuela is destined to be another Cuba,” Fernando Blasi, the Venezuelan opposition’s new envoy to the United States, told the Associated Press in April. “It will become an issue for politicians in Florida to win elections. … That would be an extremely sad destiny for a country.”

Former senior Obama administration officials such as Ben Rhodes have also questioned the Biden administration’s continuation of the sanctions, saying that “there’s something hypocritical about a policy where we turn up these sanctions in our own hemisphere so high that it’s driving all these people to our border, and then we close the border to those people. … My suggestion is, let’s start unwinding those sanctions.”

Menendez’s office did not respond to a request for comment about his support for sanctions. Proponents of the measures say most of the problems in Cuba and Venezuela are the result of economic mismanagement by the countries’ leaders. While U.S. sanctions could contribute to some migrants fleeing to the border, they are by no means the only factor.

The White House relies on Menendez, a hard-line critic of the leaders in Cuba and Venezuela, to push its appointments through the confirmation process given his role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Privately, senior Biden officials have conceded that picking a fight with him is not worth whatever benefit might come from relaxing sanctions on the two countries, even if it would fulfill a campaign promise Biden made to restore President Barack Obama’s policies toward Cuba.

“Biden is a creature of the Senate, and he’s gone to great lengths to keep Menendez onside,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “This administration is not going to make major policy shifts without getting buy-in from the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee — or at least an agreement to disagree.”