Halted Deportation Flights to Venezuela Set Back Biden’s Migrant Strategy

Halted Deportation Flights to Venezuela Set Back Biden’s Migrant Strategy

When deportation flights from the United States to Venezuela resumed last fall after four years, it was a move meant to show that President Biden was aggressively tackling the record numbers of crossings at the U.S. southern border.

The expulsions were also meant to deter other Venezuelans who might be considering the journey.

But on Wednesday, for the second week in a row, U.S.-run flights to Venezuela carrying migrants did not depart as planned — a move that seems to be initiated by Venezuela.

The Venezuelan government did not respond to repeated requests for comment about whether it was permanently halting the deportation flights, but a social media post by Venezuela’s vice president last month threatened to stop them after the United States reimposed some economic sanctions.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed that a flight scheduled last week and another scheduled Wednesday had both been canceled.

The officials said they were not authorized to discuss the flights publicly.

They said the reason for the cancellations was not clear, but one official said the agency would continue its attempts to deport Venezuelans.

At a meeting in Colombia on Monday, Juan Gonzalez, a senior adviser at the U.S. National Security Council, also confirmed a recent flight had been canceled, but said he was “confident” the flights would resume soon.

“We look forward to actually being able to restart the direct repatriations from the United States to Venezuela,” he said.

The United States deported a total of more than 1,300 Venezuelans back to Venezuela from October to late December, according to data obtained by The New York Times, representing only a tiny fraction of the more than half a million Venezuelans who have arrived in the United States in recent years.

But the deportation flights have been an important political symbol for the Biden administration, showing that the president is actively addressing the migrant surge. Their possible end would be another setback for Mr. Biden, experts say, coming just as a congressional border deal collapses in Washington.

“This comes at the worst possible moment for the Biden administration,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow for Venezuela at the Atlantic Council.

Halting deportation flights could be the Venezuelan government’s way of weaponizing immigration to strike back against the United States for reimposing sanctions, said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London.

Mr. Sabatini characterized it as a desperate move meant to hit Mr. Biden in a perceived weak spot.

“They don’t have many other things they can do,” he said.

Republican lawmakers have criticized Mr. Biden’s strategy toward Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro. “Biden gets played again,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote last week on the social media platform X. “He lifted sanctions on Venezuela in ‘deal’ for free elections & deportation flights, now regime is backing out.”

The uncertainty around deportation flights comes as growing tensions between the United States and Venezuela threaten to derail a deal made between the two governments last fall: The United States lifted some sanctions after Mr. Maduro’s government agreed to take steps toward holding free and fair elections this year.

But late last month, after Venezuela’s highest court issued a ruling barring an opposition leader, María Corina Machado, from running for president, the United States reinstated some of the sanctions.

That same day, Venezuela’s vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, said in a social media post that flights could stop in response to those renewed sanctions, which she called “rude and unjustified blackmail.”

Ms. Machado overwhelmingly won an opposition primary election for president last year that was held without official government support and is widely seen by experts as posing a significant threat to Mr. Maduro in a presidential contest.

The Biden administration has warned that it could reimpose tougher sanctions on Venezuela’s critical oil and gas industry that it had suspended for six months if the Maduro government fails to allow credible national elections, including allowing candidates representing the opposition. The six-month suspension expires in April.

Deportation flights to Venezuela were halted in 2019 under former President Donald J. Trump, citing conditions in Venezuela, including civil unrest, that threatened the safety of passengers and flight crews.

As U.S. officials attempt to get the deportation flights back on track, Venezuelans in detention and slated for deportation have received contradictory messages, said Luis Ángeles, a lawyer working in Florida whose firm represents more than two dozen Venezuelan clients.

Last week, Venezuelans in deportation proceedings were told that flights had been indefinitely halted, he said, creating panic among his clients and their families.

“In the past two weeks, we’ve been inundated with calls from family members regarding detainees with final deportation orders,” Mr. Ángeles said. “There is a growing fear that their family members could be confined in detention centers for months or years.”

This week, the whiplash continued, he said, with the same clients receiving word from American immigration authorities that flights to Venezuela would in fact restart, possibly by the end of the week.

Monica Vázquez, 39, is among those whose asylum claims were denied. In recent weeks, she expected to be put on a flight, only to find herself still stuck in a detention center in Louisiana, said her cousin, Maxyoris Faria.

“We’re here feeling anxious about the news that deportation flights aren’t going out — and they won’t tell her she can be released into the United States, either,” said Ms. Faria, who noted Ms. Vázquez had been in detention for four months.

“The days go by without us knowing what will happen,” she added. “We’re praying to God that she can get out of there.”

Along with deportation flights, officials with the Department of Homeland Security say the United States continues to remove Venezuelan migrants to Mexico and does expel Venezuelans on commercial flights to the country, though that is much more difficult to do.

The deportation flights between the two countries had been taking off about once a week, a Homeland Security official said, and generally held about 130 deportees.

The Venezuelans on the flights were mostly men, according to lawyers and migrant organizations in the United States.

After arriving in Venezuela, the deportees recount having been held by the authorities and interviewed at length, lawyers and migrant groups say, adding that some are released after a few days, while others continue to be detained.

The resumption of deportations was unusual because the United States and Venezuela do not have diplomatic relations, though the Biden administration has shown a willingness to engage more with the authoritarian government than Mr. Trump did.

The tide of Venezuelans trying to reach the United States has been fueled by the collapse of Venezuela’s economy and political repression at the hands of the authoritarian government.

The continuing influx has led to mounting pressure on Mr. Biden from Democratic mayors in cities where migrants — many of them Venezuelan — were straining local resources.

The conditions that have prompted many Venezuelans to leave in the first place have largely not changed. The economic crisis has decimated the country’s health care and public school system and food prices have soared. About one-fourth of the country’s population has left Venezuela, one of the largest migrations in modern history.

Living conditions became so difficult that the Biden administration offered temporary humanitarian protections to Venezuelans who were in the United States by July 31. Nearly 500,000 Venezuelans qualified for the protection, which allows them to work legally.

Isayen Herrera and Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting.

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Bruce Killigang

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