The Trump administration secretly deported an unknown number of Venezuelans through a third country, possibly in violation of U.S. laws, according to a letter released on Friday by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez.
The senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the State Department had confirmed in writing late last month that it “surreptitiously” deported an unknown number of Venezuelans from the United States through the Caribbean countries of Trinidad and Tobago. This was after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed despite a flight ban on travel to and from Venezuela in May 2019.
The so-called “stealth” deportations only ceased after the outbreak of the coronavirus this year, he said.
“New documents provided to my office confirm that U.S. deportations to Venezuela continued via third countries at least until March 2020, while the Trump Administration has offered little assurance that it will not continue to forcibly return Venezuelans to a regime the United Nations recently stated has committed crimes against humanity,” Menendez wrote.
The Cuban-American senator who represents the state of New Jersey, is demanding that the State Department now provide detailed information on the dates of the flights and how many Venezuelans were deported. He cited U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data obtained through a non-government database showing that over 100 Venezuelans were deported between October and February, including 95 with no criminal conviction.
The embassy of the interim government of Venezuela, headed by Juan Guaidó, told Univision that it had no information on deportations to the South American country this year. "The information handled by our Consular Affairs office is that there have been no deportations," said a spokesman.
"There are no flights to Venezuela at this time. If there are no flights to Venezuela, there can be no deportations," he explained. "There may have been a few very specific cases of people who voluntarily asked to be deported because they no longer wanted to be in legal proceedings here," he added.
There are currently 274 Venezuelans in U.S. immigration detention, down from 1,200 a year ago, the embassy spokesperson said. Of those 726 were released on parole.
The State Department and Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Telemundo previously reported in March that 130 Venezuelans were deported since the beginning of the fiscal year in October, via third countries.
"Troika of tyranny"
While the Trump administration has condemned the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, labeled as the “troika of tyranny”, it continues deporting their citizens.
Experts say that deporting foreign nationals via a third country is almost unprecedented, especially when it involves countries which the United States has accused of major human rights violations, including lack of legal due process and torture.
“U.S. law forbids the forcible return of refugees to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened, U.S. regulations have suspended all air travel to Venezuela, and U.S. foreign policy should be to counter the Maduro regime’s systematic abuses of human rights,” Menendez wrote in the letter , dated October 16, addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chau and acting Homeland Security Secretary, Chad Wolf.
“The administration’s continued deportation of Venezuelan nationals appears to undermine these policies,” he added.
Democrats and human rights groups have been calling on the Trump administration for months to grant Temporary Protected Status to the thousands of undocumented Venezuelan who have sought refuge in the United States since the South American country fell into a political and humanitarian crisis after two decades of corrupt socialist misrule.
“While the President refuses TPS for Venezuelans … the Trump Administration has been going to extraordinary lengths to continue deporting Venezuelans, this time deporting them through Trinidad and Tobago because of the absence of direct flights,” a Democratic Senate aide told Univision.
Venezuela, once an oil- rich nation, is also is the grips of a stunning economic collapse that has seen millions of its 30 million citizens flee the country. On top of the that its’ public health institutions are struggling to cope with basic needs, including 85,000 covid-19 cases that have claimed 714 lives, according to official statistics which are widely considered to be woefully undercounted.
These newly-revealed incidents follow press reporting last year indicating that U.S. deportations to Venezuela continued on Copa Airlines flights via Panama in spite of the FAA’s suspension. The FAA fined Copa Airlines in June 2019 for violating the flight ban.
U.S. officials recognized earlier this year that the deportation of Venezuelans had continued, though they provided no details. On February 6, 2020, the U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said, “I wouldn’t say there is a complete freeze on the deportation of Venezuelans, but the number of deportations is extremely low.”
In August, Abrams testified publicly that it would not be safe to deport Venezuelans back to Venezuela and that the Trump Administration “currently is not doing so.”
Several Democratic senators, including Menendez, last month called on the Trump administration to stop “egregious” policies denying asylum and sending people fleeing dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua back to their countries to face retaliation.
“The Administration’s policies to expel and endanger refugees and asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries send a message of callousness, cruelty, and disregard for human rights that feeds our adversaries’ agenda to cast doubt on the United States’ exceptional role as a beacon of freedom and democracy,” the senators wrote.
Between October last year and March 2020, the latest data available, 64 percent of the asylum claims made by Cubans and 61 percent of the claims made by Nicaraguans were denied, according to data from the immigration courts obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
About 45 percent of those made by Venezuelans fleeing the largest humanitarian crisis in the region were also denied.