WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following remarks on the Senate Floor after Senate Republicans blocked a unanimous consent (UC) request to immediately approve the House-passed Venezuela TPS Act of 2019. Menendez was joined on the Senate Floor by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL). The bipartisan legislation would provide Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 200,000 eligible Venezuelans that currently reside in the United States and are at risk of deportation.
Senator Menendez, who traveled to the Colombia-Venezuela border earlier this month to review the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis, was the first author of bipartisan legislation designating Venezuela for TPS in December 2018. In February of this year, Menendez and Durbin reintroduced the bipartisan Venezuela Temporary Protected Status Act of 2019. The Senators recently blasted the Trump Administration Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinelli after he officially informed the Senate that President Trump would refuse to designate Venezuela for Temporary Protected Status.
Below are the Senator’s remarks as delivered:
“Let me thank my colleague from Illinois who has been a clarion voice in this regard, a strong proponent of human rights and democracy in Venezuela and in other parts of the world. But in the case of Venezuela, he’s traveled there at a time in which people could not travel in an effort to see if there is a pathway forward and to see the plight of the Venezuelan people. And I really appreciate his cosponsorship of this effort to grant Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans. His leadership is critically important, not only as the Democratic Whip but also as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, which I hope can take up this legislation.
I will say this, I regret that our colleague from Utah, one, objected and, two, left. I would make two observations about his comments. Number one, there was a strong bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives. So while it was not unanimity, there was already a strong bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives. And secondly, this legislation has been over here in the Senate for some time now. We offered it some time ago, so it’s not new. Thirdly, I would say that when it comes to whether we get to legislate in this Chamber, that depends on the Majority Leader and his side of the aisle that controls the Floor. Democrats would like to see legislating take place. We'd be happy to have a debate on the fierce urgency of now as it relates to the issue of TPS… temporary -- underline -- temporary protected status
I fear that my colleague was unaware of what he just objected to. This urgently needed legislation would have granted Temporary Protected—this is a class of people that need to be protected— Status to approximately 200,000 Venezuelans currently residing in the United States.
As we all know, the Maduro regime has created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that has now forced more than four million Venezuelan refugees and migrants to flee their homeland. More than four million—think about it. This is on the verge of becoming one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophe and refugee situations we have in the world right here in our own hemisphere; That's something, considering what’s happening in Syria and other places in the world
In response to this human tragedy, last December, I, along with Senator Durbin, authored the first bipartisan bill to provide TPS for Venezuelans, which we reintroduced in February. And, just last week, the House passed their own bipartisan version of this legislation, with support from dozens of Republicans members.
It is an unconscionable moral failing for the Senate not to approve this legislation.
Earlier this month, as the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I traveled to the Venezuelan border to see the crisis firsthand. And, I returned convinced that we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines any longer.
My colleague would not have objected to TPS for Venezuelans if he saw what I saw.
During my trip to Cúcuta , I walked on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, amidst the thousands—thirty thousand cross each and every day—of Venezuelan refugees and migrants cross into Colombia every day.
I joined hundreds of Venezuelans fleeing hunger as they sought food at the Divine Providence soup kitchen.
I visited patients seeking medical care that is no longer available in Venezuela—and by the way, Venezuela should be one of the wealthiest countries in the western hemisphere. It has huge oil and natural gas reserves. but despite that, they can't get medical care in Venezuela because the hospital system has completely collapsed.
And, I was there when the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report decrying that the Maduro regime’s security forces had murdered nearly 7,000 Venezuelans in the last two years.
My colleague cannot possibly want to return Venezuelans to the cruel conditions that they are fleeing. That’s what Temporary protected Status is all about.
These extraordinary conditions have scattered millions of Venezuelans in countries across the Americas. Today, 1.3 million reside in Colombia. 750,000 in Peru. 250,000 in Ecuador.
As the numbers keep growing, Colombia and its neighbors have largely welcomed Venezuelans as they flee a devastating humanitarian catastrophe.
By not approving this bill today, the United States is failing to match their efforts and failing to provide Temporary Protected Status for the 200,000 vulnerable Venezuelans already living in our country.
Now for those who doubt whether TPS would make a difference for these Venezuelan families, allow me to share with you just a few stories provided to my office by the respected Venezuelan human rights group Foro Penal.
Yuley Gomez is the mother of Luis David, a four-year-old with a delicate heart condition. In Venezuela, Yuley asked for help from everyone she could. But, all she received was a prescription for painkillers, and in closed-door meetings, she was told to patiently wait for the inevitable death of her child. Four years old.
Just imagine being told to wait for a son or daughter to succumb to a treatable illness. No parent would do that.
And so after great personal sacrifice, Yuley made it to the United States, and admitted her son into Boston Children’s Hospital.
Three years later, Luis David is thriving, but he requires frequent check-ups and treatments that remain unavailable in Venezuela to this day.
Then there is Leila Calderon, who resides in my home state of New Jersey.
Her nephew, who once lived with her in Caracas, is a pilot in the Venezuelan Armed Forces. He was wrongly arrested for plotting to overthrow Maduro.
In the absence of evidence, he was released from jail. But on his way home, he received a call warning him that military counterintelligence agents were waiting for him.
When he tried to hide, security forces arbitrarily arrested his mother, his girlfriend, and his father-in-law. The following day, he was detained and charged once more, again with no evidence. He remains imprisoned today.
Even Leila, who has publicly advocated for his release, has been labeled as a "terrorist" on national television by the regime thug Diosdado Cabello.
Finally, I want to share the story of Omar Acosta. His brother, Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo, was detained on June 21, 2019, by members of the Venezuelan military counterintelligence.
After being forcibly imprisoned for a week, on June 28, 2019, Captain Acosta was rolled into an arraignment hearing in a wheelchair, visibly affected by torture.
He died the following day.
The kind of torture that took Captain Acosta’s life is just one of the many dangers that Venezuelans in the United States wouldn’t need to fear if we approved TPS today.
The Maduro regime’s unthinkable abuses have created a full-blown refugee crisis in our own hemisphere. These extraordinary, and what we pray are temporary, conditions prevent millions of Venezuelans from safely returning home – including 200,000 in our country.
Madam President, there has been broad bipartisan support for the Trump Administration’s efforts to confront the Maduro regime. However, as we confront Maduro, we cannot turn our back on the Venezuelan people.
Unfortunately, today, the Senate has chosen not to act. We could have sent legislation to the President’s desk that ensures that vulnerable Venezuelans in the U.S. are not sent back into harm’s way, into potential death or imprisonment. Instead, we did nothing.
That is a tragedy in its own right. This is what we could have avoided today. And I just hope, and I’m sure that Senator Durbin ad I will continue to push forward, will challenge both the leadership here to allow us either to have this passed or give us a vote. I think the community should know who stands on their side and whether or not they're willing to protect them temporarily from the enormous humanitarian catastrophe, the great risks of the loss of life or liberty that exists for Venezuelans here in the United States who have fled to freedom.
We’re going to go out of session at the end of this week, so that means all of these people will languish for the summer not knowing whether in fact they can be deported back to a country for which they may very well lose their life or their liberty. That is pretty outrageous. If we cannot get it done this week, then I hope to God we can get it done in September. Because if not, I worry about a continuing crisis that will create only a greater uncertainty, that will create greater risk to those who are simply fleeing freedom and who are being, by the way, very productive citizens here while they are temporarily in our country. With that, Madam President, I yield the floor.”