MIAMI -- Migrants and asylum-seekers fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries have increasingly found that protections in the United States are available to those with money or the savvy to find someone to vouch for them financially.
President Joe Biden announced an expansion of humanitarian parole Thursday for Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans that is reserved for those who apply online, pay airfare and have a financial sponsor for two years.
It builds on a measure introduced in October to admit 24,000 Venezuelans to the United States for two years if they have sponsors -- and, on the flip side, to quickly expel anyone crossing the border illegally back to Mexico, denying them a chance to seek asylum.
Maria Antonieta Diaz, a Venezuela-born accountant and entrepreneur living in the U.S for more than two decades, sent a WhatsApp message to former classmates in Venezuela after the Biden administration offered humanitarian parole Oct. 12, asking if they needed a sponsor. She set up a website, circulated a sign-up sheet and got 40,000 responses from people seeking financial backing, some representing entire families.
Diaz vouched for a man who came with two adult sons but left behind his wife, a daughter and her spouse, and a 6-month-old child because they could not afford $200 passport renewals.
Many in the U.S. are reluctant to sponsor strangers, fearing they will be on the hook for any debts, Diaz said.
"It is not easy, it is not a perfect program, not everyone will be able to benefit," Diaz said in a phone interview from her office in Miramar, a suburb northwest of Miami.
U.S. officials pointed to a 90% drop in Venezuelan arrivals after October's policy shift, ending their short-lived status as the second-largest nationality at the border after Mexicans. The Biden administration granted parole under similar terms to 100,000 Ukrainians after Russia's invasion.
Asked about limiting parole to those with financial backing, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas didn't answer directly, saying only that such policies for Venezuelans and Ukrainians succeeded.
"What we have seen is a tremendous thirst for these lawful programs," Mayorkas said at a news conference. "We find this to be a humane, lawful and orderly way."
Mayorkas said the policy will last as long as conditions dictate, potentially even beyond a pandemic-era rule known as Title 42, under which migrants have been denied a chance to seek asylum under U.S. and international law 2.5 million times on grounds of preventing the spread of covid-19. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Title 42 in February.
He said U.S. officials are also working on a plan under which people may seek asylum through scheduled appointments at border entry points.
Guerline Jozef, executive director of Haitian Bridge Alliance, said telling people who are fleeing extreme conditions in their countries to stay put is unacceptable, and questioned how someone in a dire situation traveling through the Americas without a phone or access to an embassy is supposed to use an app to get an appointment to apply for asylum.
"That is completely disconnected from the reality of people fleeing to seek asylum," Jozef told reporters Friday.
Under laws that grew out of World War II and the Cold War, asylum applicants must prove they face persecution at home under limited criteria such as race, political opinion or religious belief, without regard to financial status. Some who arrive at the border will later obtain asylum through the U.S. immigration courts, but not all will qualify.
Under the parole policy, Homeland Security can admit anyone "on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit."
Critics to Biden's right, like former top Trump adviser Stephen Miller, called the parole expansion a "mass amnesty."
In October, Dr. Kyle Varner of Spokane, Wash., was overwhelmed with hundreds of responses when he posted on Facebook that he was open to sponsoring Venezuelans. He set aside a four-room house that he bought as an investment.
Varner has backed 49 Venezuelans so far, most of whom he has never seen. Only eight have been approved and settled in Spokane.
Varner, 38, developed an affinity for Venezuelans as a medical student in Miami in 2012, surrounded by neighbors who left the South American country for a better life. As a doctor, he says he can provide medical care if needed, business contacts to find a job and assistance with online English learning.
"My idea is that I'm a launching pad for people to have a new life," he said. "I intend to do everything I can to advocate for the expansion of this program, and I also want to help Americans who want to be sponsors."
Few Venezuelans are so lucky to find someone like Varner, who has traveled four times to Cucuta, a Colombian city on Venezuela's border, to provide free medical care to fleeing Venezuelans.
Prospective volunteers may hesitate to provide tax returns or other required documents, said Parker Newburn, program coordinator for Home for Refugees, an aid group. Many Venezuelans have relatives in the United States but not all are in a position to sponsor, he said.
Jenderson Rondon, an opponent of Venezuela's government who met Varner in 2019 at the Colombian border, arrived in Spokane in November. He was unable to afford the flight, which the doctor paid for. He applied to work at restaurants and hospitals and hopes to save enough to sponsor his mother and sister, who are in Colombia and don't have valid passports.
"There are lots of people that cannot find a sponsor," said Rondon, who constantly receives messages in his Instagram account asking him about opportunities.
Venezuelan attorney Henry Nodales, 22, had never met the doctor, but they had mutual friends. He borrowed from a friend to pay for the flight and hopes to earn enough to support his parents and sister back home.
"I have the miraculous opportunity to have legal status, a benefit that many do not have," he said.