Trump administration to continue deporting Venezuelans despite crisis

Charles Davis
Photograph: Salvador Gonzalez/AP

The Trump administration has said it is not yet willing to grant temporary protected status to Venezuelans, meaning it will continue to deport people back to a country it says is being destroyed by a tyrant.

The news comes amid a humanitarian crisis that could forcibly displace as many as 8.2 million people by the end of 2020, and the same month that the United Nations accused the Venezuelan government of killing thousands of its own citizens.

Related: Venezuela's 'staggering' exodus reaches 4 million, UN refugee agency says

In a letter released on Tuesday, the acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services director, Ken Cuccinelli, said the administration was not willing to grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelans. “As it relates to Venezuela,” Cuccinelli wrote in the letter, addressed to the Senate minority leader, Dick Durbin, “the US Government continues to monitor the situation in Venezuela.”

Venezuela is now the leading country of origin for asylum seekers in the United States, with nearly 30,000 Venezuelans applying for protection in 2018.

The TPS program is designed to prevent foreign nationals from being deported back to countries facing civil unrest or the aftermath of a devastating natural disaster. It has also been a target of the White House, which has sought to terminate TPS for migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan.

“Venezuela is exactly the sort of situation that TPS was designed to address,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, Americas advocacy director at Amnesty International.

Donald Trump has presented himself as a steadfast opponent of the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and most prominent supporter of his opponent Juan Guaidó, but his administration continues to deport Venezuelans to their homeland. Between October 2017 and September 2018, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 336 Venezuelan citizens.

“At the same time the government is saying it needs to monitor the situation more, administration officials are calling the government of Maduro a ‘thugocracy’, and decrying the humanitarian situation that so many Venezuelans are facing,” Krishnaswami added.

In a joint response to the administration’s letter, Senators Durbin and Bob Menendez said the president “cannot have it both ways. He cannot warn Americans that Venezuela is so dangerous they should avoid traveling there and then turn around and tell Venezuelans in the US they are forced to return.”

A USCIS representative insisted that “the letter is being misinterpreted”, noting that, ultimately, a TPS designation “is a decision made by the Secretary of Homeland Security”.

Néstor Guillén, a Venezuelan green-card holder in the US since 2006, said the disparity between US rhetoric and action reflects “hypocrisy and opportunism” by an electorally minded Republican party. “TPS is the lowest-hanging fruit by which we can help Venezuelans in the short term,” he said. The Trump administration is “selling snake oil, not lending humanitarian assistance”.

Refusing to grant TPS “sends the absolute wrong message to Venezuelans, and to the rest of Latin America”, said Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America. “It’s as if this administration’s concern for Venezuelans ends the instant they leave their country.”