Immigration chief wants more deportation flights to Cuba, restart them to Venezuela

One of the top immigration officials in the U.S. wants the federal government to resume direct deportation flights to Venezuela and increase repatriations to Cuba, both countries from which hundreds of thousands of migrants have attempted to come to the United States in recent years.

“I’d love to ramp them up. We’re still in dialogue and trying,” Patrick J. Lechleitner, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Miami Herald about deportations to Havana.

Lechleitner, a civil servant with a law enforcement background, has been at the Department of Homeland Security, the mother agency of ICE, since its inception. He declined to share any further details about any ongoing negotiations with the governments of the two nations.

The agency chief told the Herald that ICE has to navigate “a very dynamic international environment” amid deportation flights whose frequency can ebb and flow depending on whether a foreign government is open to taking its citizens at a given time, a variable that is out of control of his agency. The State Department is tasked with foreign policy and holding dialogue with foreign governments.

“There are certain countries around the world that are definitely more difficult to deal with. Some very small amount just don’t want to take their people back. We’re working with them constantly trying to get them to take their nationals back,” he said. “But it’s not a new thing. This is a constant problem we always have to face.”

U.S. deportations depend on conditions in those countries, available federal resources and the status of diplomatic relations, amid other factors. Deportation flights to Cuba stopped amid the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed again last spring. There has been an average of one flight to Cuba a month for the last 14 months, according to independent analyst Tom Cartwright, who has tracked U.S. deportations for years and is an advocate for Witness at the Border.

Meanwhile, the last deportation flight to Venezuela took place in January, shortly after the U.S. announced sanctions when Venezuela barred opposition candidates from running in the upcoming presidential election. In all, available federal data shows that the agency deported 122 Cubans and 1,553 Venezuelans between October and Dec. 2023.

The challenges around returning people to Venezuela and Cuba reflect the difficulties the U.S. faces in deporting migrants to some countries that have been significant sources of migration in recent years. Several countries in the Western Hemisphere are facing socioeconomic and political crises, presenting a challenging landscape for the region’s governments as they attempt to address the root causes of migration.

‘Immigration system is not punitive’

Deportations to Haiti temporarily stopped earlier this year, amid an ongoing gang insurgency that threatens to topple the government. Since then, gangs have broken thousands of inmates out of prison, killed police officers and vandalized and burned schools, hospitals and neighborhoods.

Gang violence in Haiti left approximately 2,500 people dead or injured in the first three months of this year. Almost 580,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, according to a recent United Nations report.

The resumption of deportations to Haiti in April triggered furor among Haitian rights activists and immigration advocacy groups who for years have been calling on the Biden administration to stop the flights there. Advocates have pointed out that the U.S. government evacuated its own citizens out of Haiti earlier this year, and that the Biden administration has expanded Haiti’s Temporary Protected Status twice so more Haitians already in the U.S. can benefit from the program’s deportation protections and work authorizations.

Lechleitner said that the deportation flights continue because the federal government wants “to make sure there is still a consequence for irregular migration.”

“There’s a way you should be coming in and there’s a way you shouldn’t, so there has to be a consequence from this when you’re doing it improperly,” he said.

Lechleitner told the Herald that the agency is prioritizing deportation for people who pose public-safety risks, and that it’s working closely with the State Department and nongovernmental organizations to determine whether it’s safe enough to do a repatriation. Between Oct. 1, 2023, and February of this year, ICE has deported 201 Haitian nationals, according to agency data.

As of mid-June, the agency did not have any deportation flights scheduled to Port-Au-Prince, the ICE director said. The Haitian capital is a hotspot of gang violence. The recent flights have landed in Cap-Haïtien, a port city on the northern coast. The head of Haiti’s migration office told the Herald earlier this year that Haitians returned on deportation flights are from all over the country, and must travel through roads and neighborhoods controlled by armed gangs to return to their cities and towns.

READ MORE: Biden administration resumes deportation flights to Haiti amid ongoing violence

“We want to do it the right way. And if the data is pointing that the ground truth and what we collectively agree is that it’s not safe to do, we’re not doing it,” Lechleitner said. “But we don’t do it in a vacuum. We’re doing it with our partners in the State Department, non governmental organizations, and the United Nations to make sure we can do it.”

After a deportation flight in mid-May, the United Nations’ agency for refugees urged the Biden administration to “refrain from forcibly returning Haitians who may face life-threatening risks or further displacement.” Lechleitner acknowledged concerns about sending people back to Haiti amid the country’s volatile situation.

“We don’t ever want to repatriate an individual to an area where it’s unsafe or they can be in some kind of harm. That’s not the intent. Our immigration system is not punitive,” he said.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

One way the U.S. has increased deportation of migrants who come from places that are reluctant to take them back is by striking deals with Mexico, a key partner for the federal government in immigration issues across the Western Hemisphere. When the Biden administration rolled out a humanitarian parole program for nationals of Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti, and Nicaragua, it also announced that Mexico had agreed to take up to 30,000 people every month from those four countries who show up at the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently said that he’d like to see the U.S. deport more people directly to their home countries, given that Cuba and Venezuela accept migrants the U.S. has returned to his country.

Amid other high-profile actions that Biden has taken in recent weeks to curb illegal immigration is setting asylum limits for migrants who cross the U.S. border unlawfully whenever immigration authorities register a certain average of encounters per week. The administration said the policy would boost border enforcement capacities and make it easier to deport people who have no legal basis to stay. Immigration advocates and civil-rights groups have taken the Biden administration to federal court over the measure, arguing it’s a violation of international and U.S. asylum law. Nearly two weeks after, the administration announced a program that will make it easier for about half-a-million undocumented spouses of U.S. citizen and their children to apply for green cards.

ICE is coordinating with other departments in Homeland Security because the agency will be tasked with processing, detention, and deportation of immigrants to carry out the executive order, Lechleitner said. He added that Customs and Border Protection and Citizenship and Immigration Services will have the “lion’s share of the grunt work” related to Biden’s order.

ICE, which has been chronically underfunded and understaffed for years, announced earlier this month that it would be analyzing its contracts with air charter carriers to ensure that it was carrying out the maximum number of deportation flights possible. The agency also said it would be shutting down a detention center in Texas to move funding towards expanding the overall capacity of its beds. The agency is still in the process of identifying which facilities will see an increase in beds, its acting director said.

Advocates and experts have raised doubts that ICE will be able to significantly increase the number of deportation flights to respond to the new order without an increase in funding or resources. The presidential order did not provide for additional money or staff. But Lechleitner said that he is “cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be in a better place than we were.”

“We’re still working out how we can optimize everything we have. But we still have bandwidth,” he said of deportation flights.

Lechleitner also told the Herald that he agrees with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ assessment that the immigration system needs reform, and that he’d like his agency to have more resources to carry out enforcement duties. The Biden administration has repeatedly called on Congress to reform the U.S. immigration system, saying that the ability to make fixes is limited without further legislative action.

“We want to encourage legal immigration, and appropriate immigration, and really discourage illegitimate immigration,” Lechleitner said, “We just can’t enforce our way, arrest our way, detain or repatriate our way out of this.”