U.S. starts deportation flights to Venezuela, aiming to curb migration

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U.S. immigration authorities Wednesday returned nearly 130 migrants to Venezuela, starting deportation flights Biden administration officials view as a crucial step toward reducing the record number of illegal crossings at the U.S. southern border.

The deportations follow an agreement by the Venezuelan government to hold competitive elections next year, a deal that paves the way for the Biden administration to ease economic sanctions.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter flight departed from the U.S. border city of Harlingen, Tex., on Wednesday, stopping briefly in Miami before continuing to the international airport in Caracas, according to U.S. officials and flight tracking data. Venezuelan authorities barred reporters from speaking with deportees after the flight landed.

ICE said in a statement that it “facilitated the first charter flight to Venezuela as part of other routine ICE removal flights conducted throughout the hemisphere and around the world.” The agency said the flights “enforce United States immigration laws while strengthening the consequences for those who cross our border unlawfully.”

The number of Venezuelan migrants crossing the U.S. southern border illegally has reached historic levels during the past several months. The influx has exacerbated strains at shelters in New York, Chicago and other U.S. cities whose Democratic mayors have been pleading for federal aid and have been increasingly outspoken in their criticism of President Biden’s border policies.

Venezuelans who entered the United States illegally had faced little risk of deportation until now. Nearly 500,000 Venezuelans have crossed the U.S. southern border during the past three years, including about 50,000 taken into custody last month by U.S. agents, the highest one-month total ever, according to preliminary data obtained by The Washington Post.

The United States severed diplomatic ties with the government of President Nicolás Maduro in 2019 after an election widely viewed as fraudulent. Trump administration officials endorsed an unsuccessful coup attempt by Maduro opponents later that year, and in 2020, U.S. federal prosecutors accused Maduro and other senior Venezuelan officials with flooding the United States with illegal narcotics and “narco-terrorism.”

The diplomatic tensions made it nearly impossible for U.S. immigration authorities to return Venezuelans as deportees, even as tens of thousands per month began arriving at the U.S. southern border.

New York City shelter system stressed by arrival of thousands of Venezuelans

Venezuela has devolved from one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America to one of its poorest, despite possessing the world’s largest proven oil reserves and other abundant natural resources. More than 7 million Venezuelans have fled economic misery and repression since Maduro came to power a decade ago, leading to the largest displaced population in the world, according to the United Nations.

Most of those Venezuelans resettled in other South American nations such as Colombia and Peru, but starting in recent years, growing numbers began heading north to the United States.

Two U.S. officials said Wednesday’s deportation flight was the first ICE Air flight to Venezuela on record. Before 2020, the number of monthly deportations to Venezuela was small enough that ICE typically sent migrants home on regular commercial flights, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Biden officials said they plan to send multiple deportation flights per week to Venezuela. They have pushed back against criticism from immigrant advocacy groups, touting Biden’s moves to significantly expand opportunities for Venezuelans to enter the United States legally.

The president is allowing 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua to enter the United States each month with two-year work permits, and he is letting another 45,000 asylum-seekers enter by making an appointment at an official U.S. border crossing by using a government mobile app.

Biden also extended temporary legal status on Sept. 23 to more than 470,000 Venezuelans already in the United States. Only those who arrived on or before July 31 are eligible for the renewable 18-month residency permits. Biden officials say Venezuelans who crossed illegally after that date will be deported if they do not qualify for humanitarian protection.

“Just weeks ago, officials deemed Venezuela patently unsafe for deportations of anyone who had arrived prior to August,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “Despite this, the Biden administration has not offered an explanation of how conditions have improved in the short period since. Tragically, removals of vulnerable people to perilous conditions are not new.”

The administration’s Oct. 5 announcement that it would begin conducting deportation flights to Venezuela appears to be having its intended effect, according to preliminary Customs and Border Protection statistics showing a significant drop in illegal entries since then, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the data.

In New York City, where Venezuelans make up the largest share of the more than 60,000 migrants in shelters, Mayor Eric Adams announced a rule this week that will limit to 60 days the amount of time families with children can remain. Last month, the city said adults who aren’t traveling with children would be required to leave shelters after 30 days.

Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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