2024 Election

Venezuela Stops Accepting Flights of Deported Illegal Immigrants From Biden Admin


Venezuela is no longer taking in flights of migrants deported from the U.S. and Mexico, undermining a key tool that the Biden administration has tried to use to deter illegal migration from the South American country, according to people familiar with the measures.

Almost weekly flights from the U.S. to Venezuela came to a stop in late January, U.S. officials said. It marks the longest hiatus in flights since the two countries announced a landmark deal to restart deportations in October.

The U.S. had sent about 1,800 Venezuelans back home on 15 flights, a small fraction of the nearly half million Venezuelans detained along the southwestern border over the past two years, according to U.S. government data.

The flights to Venezuela were intended to send a signal to migrants that they would face significant deportation risks if they crossed the border illegally, potentially easing some of the pressure on President Biden, whose poll ratings are suffering ahead of November’s presidential election because of the immigration issue. A similar measure was effective in curtailing a surge of Haitian migrants aiming to get into the U.S. last year.

Biden administration officials say that the U.S. government has other mechanisms to deport migrants back to Venezuela, including commercial flights.

The U.S. Department for Homeland Security said it’s not backing down on border enforcement and is working with allies in the region to address the historic migration. “If Venezuelan migrants do not avail themselves of lawful pathways,” a spokeswoman said, “they are subject to removal,” such as being sent to Mexico.

There are no direct commercial flights between the U.S. and Venezuela, and Mexican authorities won’t deport Venezuelans on commercial flights, said one person familiar with the measures.

If there are no government-run deportation flights to Venezuela, “it stands out that there’s no ability to deport Venezuelans back to Venezuela,” said Tom Cartwright, who tracks deportation flight data for Witness at the Border, a U.S. immigration advocacy group.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The future of a deal between the Biden administration and the Venezuelan regime, designed to help the U.S. manage record numbers of Venezuelan migrants, is now in jeopardy, according to former U.S. diplomats and analysts who closely track diplomacy between the two countries.

The Venezuelan government said in January it would stop accepting deportees from the U.S. after Washington began reimposing limited economic sanctions against Caracas for failure to follow through on loose pledges to restore democratic order and move toward staging transparent and fair presidential elections.

The halting of flights leaves the U.S. more dependent on migration enforcement in Mexico and Panama, countries through which hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have trudged in recent years to seek asylum in the U.S. Venezuela’s measure also hampers the enforcement capability of Mexican immigration authorities, who just reinstated direct deportations to Venezuela with two flights in late December.

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Unable to deport detained Venezuelan migrants, Mexican authorities had been flying them from communities along the U.S.-Mexico border to cities in southern Mexico, part of an effort to discourage the flow of U.S.-bound migrants from Venezuela and prevent mass concentrations near the U.S.  A recent high-court ruling prevents Mexican officials from detaining migrants crossing Mexico illegally for more than 36 hours.

Another person close to the matter said the halt in Venezuelan deportation flights isn’t a formal measure. Instead, Venezuelan diplomats are obstructing the departure of flights by failing to verify the citizenship of those identified for deportation, a process that guarantees that those sent to Venezuela are Venezuelans.

In some cases, the diplomats say that they don’t have the staff to conduct such citizenship verification, this person said. Venezuelan authorities in other instances say that they will only accept deportees who volunteer to go back home.

The October deportations agreement was announced after more than a year of secret negotiations between senior U.S. and Venezuelan officials. The U.S. lifted sanctions on the oil industry and other sectors in Venezuela, a prisoner exchange was held, and Venezuela said it would take steps leading to free and fair elections later this year.

An estimated 7.7 million Venezuelans have left the country since President Nicolás Maduro took office in 2013, fleeing rampant crime, poverty and political persecution. Senior White House advisers had argued that holding free elections and stabilizing the economy in Venezuela could help stem the outflow of Venezuelan migrants and encourage some to return.

Since the agreement, though, Maduro has grown more repressive, the U.S. and rights groups say.

The regime arrested dozens of opposition activists and public figures, the latest a respected analyst on Venezuela’s armed forces, Rocío San Miguel, who has been accused of participating in a plot to kill Maduro and giving military secrets to foreign governments. Her lawyers say the charges are bogus. Authorties say she is being held in a detention center where rights groups and former prisoners say torture is frequently used against detainees.

The Venezuelan government has also recently ordered the United Nations human rights office to leave the country, and upheld a ban prohibiting opposition leader María Corina Machado from running in the election. The U.S. restored sanctions on Venezuela’s gold sector on Feb. 13, and American officials say sanctions on the country’s oil industry can be reimposed in mid-April unless Maduro makes progress on ensuring a fair vote.

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“The more Maduro stays, the more Venezuelans will leave,” Machado said in a forum earlier this month.

On Wednesday, Maduro urged Venezuelan migrants to come home and blamed U.S. media for stirring up xenophobia against his compatriots in the diaspora. “We love Venezuelan migrants. Come back. We’re waiting for you, this is your land,” he said on national television.

To spur the deporations, the U.S. had removed its restrictions that had been placed on Venezuelan state carrier Conviasa, helping facilitate flights from other countries like Chile, Peru and Mexico, where authorities have struggled to deal with large numbers of Venezuelan asylum seekers, especially those denied permission to stay.

Rights groups criticized the flights, citing how Venezuela frequently jails people without charge.

“Speaking frankly, we do these deportations to countries in complicated situations all the time,” Blas Nuñez-Neto, the U.S.’s top official on border control, said in a news conference in October.

In November, after 180 Venezuelans were flown home from Iceland, some Venezuelan relatives of those returned complained to local media that they had been arbitrarily detained after landing.

Maduro and his aides had hailed some of the early flights as part of the government’s “Return to the Homeland” program in which the regime helps migrants return to a country they say is rebounding economically.

Deportees flown back to Venezuela have been held for days for background checks and health examinations at a secluded hillside shelter outside the capital, where roads are blocked off by the National Guard, according to family members and lawyers representing deportees.

The families asked not to use their names because they said their deported relatives had to sign a document upon entry to Venezuela prohibiting them from speaking publicly about their experience. The penalty for talking is a possible charge of treason, they said.

The father of one 18-year-old said his son was facing psychological trauma after being deported back to his gang-ridden Caracas slum in November. The family had sold much of their personal belongings, including a refrigerator, to finance the son’s journey by land to the Texas border, where he was denied asylum.

The son is now working odd jobs in construction and deliveries to save up and try traveling to the U.S. again.

“He’s restless,” the father said. “The young people here all want to leave.”

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Ella Ford is a mother of two, a Christian conservative writer with degrees in American History, Social and Behavioral Science and Liberal Studies, based in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area.

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