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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 numbers 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 U.S. economic sanctions.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter departed from the U.S. border city of Harlingen, Texas, on Wednesday, stopping briefly in Miami before continuing to the Caracas International Airport, 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 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 increasingly outspoken in their criticism of President Biden’s border policies.
Venezuelans who enter the United States illegally have 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 Post.
The U.S. government severed diplomatic ties with the government of President Nicolas 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 began arriving to the U.S. southern border per month.
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, 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 growing numbers began heading north to the United States starting in recent years.
Two U.S. officials said Wednesday’s deportation flight was the first ICE Air flight to Venezuela on record. Prior to 2020, the number of monthly deportations to Venezuela was small enough that ICE typically sent returnees home on regular commercial flights, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
Biden officials say they plan to send multiple flights per week to Venezuela carrying people deported from the United States. They have pushed back at criticism of the deportations from immigrant advocacy groups, touting Biden’s moves to significantly expand opportunities for Venezuelans to enter the United States legally.
Biden is allowing 30,000 migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua to enter the United States each month with 2-year work permits, and letting another 45,000 asylum-seekers enter by making an appointment at an official U.S. border crossing by using a U.S. 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 have crossed illegally after that cutoff date will be deported if they don’t 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 CBP statistics showing a significant drop in illegal entries since then, according to officials not authorized to discuss the data.
In New York City, where Venezuelans make up the largest share of the more than 60,000 migrants currently in shelters, Mayor Eric Adams announced a new rule this week that will limit the amount of time families with children can remain to 60 days. Last month the city said adults who aren’t traveling with children with be required to leave shelters after 30 days.
Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.