MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) — The Trump administration stealthily deported an unknown number of Venezuelans through a third country, possibly violating U.S. laws and undermining U.S. warnings about the socialist government’s human rights record, according to the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Bob Menendez said Friday that the State Department in recent weeks had confirmed to his office that the deportations occurred via Trinidad and Tobago between January and March 2020.
It’s not clear how many deportations of Venezuelans took place. But Menendez said they would appear to violate a U.S. travel ban imposed in May 2019 at the height of the U.S. campaign to remove President Nicolás Maduro and which prohibits all air travel to Venezuela due to safety concerns.
Between then and February of 2020, 270 Venezuelans have been removed, according to data compiled by Syracuse University. Of those, all but a handful had no criminal conviction and over half were removed against their will, according to the Syracuse data, which is based on information from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement obtained through court litigation.
Menendez in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the Department of Homeland Security’s Chad Wolf requested details about the deportation flights and whether they had appropriate waivers.
ICE did not immediately return a request by The Associated Press for comment and further information about the deportations.
Menendez in his letter cited the penalties levied against Copa Airlines, which in June was fined $450,000 for violating the flight ban even though it didn’t transport passengers directly from the U.S. but via its hub in Panama.
Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela and Iran, said in Senate testimony in August that the U.S. was not deporting Venezuelans because it's unsafe for them to return home.
But by then Maduro’s government had cut off all travel to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Maduro this week said he hopes to reopen the nation's airports by December.
While the number of Venezuelans being deported pale in comparison to the large number of Mexican and Central American migrants turned back, many of them have sought asylum or are escaping an unprecedented economic crisis made worse by U.S. sanctions.
Aides in the U.S. of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela’s legitimate president, said they had no knowledge of any deportations this year and did not provide travel documents to facilitate any forced removals.
On the contrary, Guaidó’s envoy in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, said he has worked with U.S. authorities to reduce the number of Venezuelans held in jail pending deportation from a peak of 1,100 in September to the current 274. Many of those held in jail had their asylum requests rejected.
“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 Maduro’s systematic abuse of human rights,” Menendez wrote in the letter. “The administration’s continued deportation of Venezuelan nationals appears to undermine those policies.”
Salomon reported from Miami
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman