Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Venezuelan refugees detained in NM fearful of more deportations to Mexico • Source New Mexico

A man from Venezuela who said he fled kidnapping and torture in his home country has been held in federal immigration custody in New Mexico for nearly six months.

Now, he’s watching Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents deport other Venezuelan asylum seekers — not to their home country but to places in Mexico that are potentially dangerous for people migrating. The man already experienced violence in that country and fears more if he is forced back to a place where human rights advocates have documented many other refugees who have faced kidnapping, torture and assaults.

Trapped between the fear of violence and persecution in their home countries, the treacherous journey through Central America, and a Biden administration policy that some experts say effectively bans asylum in the United States, he and hundreds of other people are being held in administrative detention for prolonged periods without knowing their future.

The Biden administration published a rule in May that created a presumption of ineligibility for asylum, which means people can be denied entry into the country if they passed through another country on the way without applying for asylum in that country.

Advocates sometimes refer to the regulation from Biden as an “asylum ban” because of how hard it is for people to overcome the presumption.

Nearly six weeks ago, immigration attorney Sophia Genovese said she and her team of four law students won the release of some Venezuelans from the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M.

However, in late March, deportation officers in Cibola told the rest of the men still held there that the ICE El Paso Field Office would not release any more Venezuelans from custody into the United States, according to emails shared with Source New Mexico. Instead, the federal government had plans to start deportations to Mexico, the emails show.

The officers handed the Venezuelans forms in English asking whether they would be afraid of being deported to Mexico. Source New Mexico reviewed a redacted copy of the form.

Genovese and another immigration attorney, Zoe Bowman, said that without access to a translator, some asylum seekers said yes, feeling left without a choice and wanting to get out of detention. Some said no, refusing to go back to Mexico.

“A lot of people are desperate because it’s not easy here, it’s very difficult,” the asylum seeker said of the conditions inside Cibola County Correctional Center. “A lot of them are taking their chances, risking their lives to be deported.”

Genovese, who represents the asylum seeker, said the people who are going to be deported to Mexico aren’t receiving information about what happens afterward.

Source New Mexico interviewed the asylum seeker by telephone through an interpreter, and granted him anonymity in order to protect him from possible retaliation in his asylum case for sharing his story.

He’s not the only Venezuelan refugee who refuses to be deported to Mexico. On March 29, when deportation officers at Cibola started informing Venezuelan asylum seekers they intended to deport them to Mexico, 145 of them wrote a letter to ICE to state their abuses and fear of removal to Mexico.

“This is unjust. We suffered greatly in Mexico when we traveled to the USA to seek asylum,” they wrote. “To send us back to Mexico is to send us back to danger and death.”

Deportation to Mexico is only one potential outcome for the asylum seekers, but ICE has not confirmed what will happen to them. ICE is processing removals before any release requests, Genovese said.

ICE did not answer questions about the deportations from the Cibola County Correctional Center sent by Source New Mexico on April 8. We will update this story if and when we hear back.

‘No end in sight’

Some Venezuelan asylum seekers who have received orders by a federal judge to be deported are being held for prolonged and indefinite periods of time in detention facilities in New Mexico, Colorado and Louisiana. This is according to emails from Genovese and another immigration lawyer to high-ranking ICE officials in March and April.

Genovese, managing attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, and Sirine Shebaya, executive director of the National Immigration Project, explained in the emails to ICE “there is no end in sight to the detention of Venezuelan nationals” because of a diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Venezuela.

In January, Venezuela announced it would “stop accepting repatriation flights from the U.S.” after the U.S. imposed oil sanctions in response to Venezuelan courts’ decision to uphold a ban blocking a leading opposition candidate for the presidency.

That same month, the U.S. State Department went a step further and declined to renew an oil and gas relief license with Venezuela due to political repression of opposition party members by the Venezuelan government. That license expires Thursday.

The Migration Policy Institute reports that the U.S. and Venezuela were negotiating cooperation in accepting returnees, but the deal fell apart in February.

“This political situation between the United States and Venezuela makes removal to Venezuela impossible in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the lawyers wrote to ICE. “These individuals should not be detained while their deportation is impracticable. We therefore request that ICE take immediate steps to release them from detention.”

Since then, 65 Venezuelan asylum seekers have been deported from Cibola County to Mexico, according to Genovese. The first group included 15 people deported on April 1, and a second group of 50 people on April 5, she said.

Around a dozen Venezuelan asylum seekers are also stuck in limbo at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral and the El Paso Service Processing Center, according to Bowman, who meets with asylum seekers and has clients in both facilities.

“It’s not because they have ongoing court proceedings, or there’s anything they can do with their immigration cases,” said Bowman, who is the supervising attorney with the Detained Deportation Defense team at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “They’re just sitting there because ICE doesn’t know what to do with them.”

The asylum seeker said men still held in Cibola spoke with some of those who were deported, who told them they were put onto a plane to Tapachula near the border with Guatemala, and released “in a very dangerous area.” 

Genovese said based on what the first group experienced, and through communications with people still held at Cibola, they were dropped off in the southern part of Mexico near the border with Guatemala, and not given any immigration paperwork, “essentially stranded.”



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