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Deported by US, arrested in Venezuela: One family’s saga highlights Biden’s migration challenge

Published: December 27, 2023, 6:49pm

MIAMI (AP) — Pedro Naranjo idolized his father growing up and followed him into the Venezuelan air force to fly helicopters. So deep was their bond that when the older Naranjo feared being jailed for plotting against Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government, father and son fled to the United States together.

Now the two have been separated by an overstretched U.S. immigration system that has left the retired Gen. Pedro Naranjo in legal limbo in the U.S. His loyal son, a Venezuelan air force lieutenant, sits in a Venezuelan military prison after he was deported by the Biden administration as part of an attempt to discourage asylum-seekers from the turbulent South American country.

“We never had a plan B,” the older Naranjo said in a phone interview from Houston. He was released after 10 days in U.S. custody and is now awaiting the outcome of his own asylum request. “It never crossed our mind that the U.S., as an ally of the Venezuelan opposition and democracies over the world, a defender of human rights and freedom, would do what it did to my son.”

The Venezuelan diaspora is one of the most vexing migration challenges that awaits Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas when they arrive in Mexico City on Wednesday to discuss unprecedented arrivals at the U.S. border with President Andres Manuel López Obrador.

Last year, Mexico ended visa-free travel for Venezuelans, which had been a ticket to those seeking asylum in the United States. Once arriving at a Mexican border city, Venezuelans could walk across the border in broad daylight and surrender to U.S. agents, avoiding the dangers of traversing Mexico and other countries over land.

Restricting flights to Mexico encouraged walking through the perilous Darién Gap. More than a half-million migrants, predominantly Venezuelan, have traversed the jungle at the border of Colombia and Panama this year.

The resumption for the first time in years of U.S. deportation flights to Venezuela — 10 since October, according to Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that tracks flight data — have failed to stem the surge. Venezuelans were arrested more than 85,000 times crossing the border illegally in October and November, the second-highest nationality after Mexicans.

Little is known about how those deported fare once they are returned home. However, critics and members of south Florida’s close-knit community of Venezuelan exiles have blasted the Biden administration for overlooking the grave dangers faced by deportees like Naranjo.

Last week, a group calling itself Independent Venezuelan American Citizens joined Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Jimenez to denounce the younger Naranjo’s deportation and subsequent arrest at the hands of Maduro. It said it sent a request to the White House on Dec. 12 seeking to block the deportation but received no response. On Dec. 14, after failing to reverse a deportation order by an asylum officer, the younger Naranjo was deported, according to his father.

Ernesto Ackerman, a member of the group, said the deportation was akin to sending a U.S. drug agent into the hands of a drug cartel.

“It’s like taking a DEA agent and sending him to Chapo Guzmán,” Ackerman said, referring to the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. “I don’t see any difference.”

Naranjo’s deportation comes against the backdrop of U.S. attempts to improve relations with Caracas after the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign failed to topple Maduro. In November, the White House eased oil sanctions on the OPEC nation to support fledgling negotiations between Maduro and his opponents over guarantees for next year’s presidential elections. And last week, Biden announced a presidential pardon releasing from prison of a key Maduro ally held for more than three years on U.S. money-laundering charges.

Neither the White House nor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement commented on the Naranjos’ situation.

The father-son saga began in 2018, when Gen. Naranjo was arrested with a handful of other officers for allegedly plotting to assassinate Maduro, sow chaos and disrupt Venezuela’s presidential election that year. Naranjo denies his involvement in a barracks uprising dubbed “Operation Armageddon” by Maduro but nonetheless he was court-martialed, along with other alleged plotters, on charges including rebellion and treason.

In 2021, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Naranjo was hospitalized after suffering a stroke in prison. Under international pressure from Maduro’s opponents, including the head of the Organization of American States, he was allowed to complete his sentence at home.

When the government decided to extend the sentence of his co-defendants, he feared the house arrest order would be reversed and he’d be thrown back into prison. He decided to flee at the end of 2022 and his son, who he says never conspired against the Maduro government, joined him to make sure he arrived safely.

“The only crime he committed was being a good son,” said Maria Elena Machado, who has seen her son twice in prison since his return.

The two first crossed the border into Colombia, home to more than 4 million Venezuelans who’ve abandoned their homes since 2016. But with a leftist ally of Maduro in power, and Marxist rebels still lurking in the countryside, the two felt unsafe, so they decided to make the perilous trek through the Darién to the U.S. On Oct. 4, they crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, and surrendered to the U.S. Border Patrol.

Crossing illegally from Mexico exposed the Naranjos to tougher standards for passing initial asylum screenings.

A rule introduced in May applies the higher standard to anyone who crosses the border illegally after passing through another country, like Mexico, without seeking protection there. Migrants also must use one of the Biden administration’s new legal avenues to asylum, such as a new mobile app for appointments at official crossings.

Illegal crossings across nationalities, including Venezuelans, fell after the rule was introduced but the lull was short-lived.

It’s not clear why Naranjo’s asylum request was rejected. His father said he appealed the asylum officer’s initial determination that he wouldn’t face retaliation if returned to Venezuela to a federal immigration judge in Pearsall, Texas, but lost.

The younger Naranjo lacked an attorney throughout the proceedings, according to his father. Asylum-seekers are entitled to call attorneys before screening interviews, but many advocates complain that those detained get little notice, often at odd hours, and are unable to find help.

Venezuelans who clear screening do relatively well before immigration judges. Their asylum grant rate was 72% in the government’s fiscal year ended Sept. 30, compared to 52% for all nationalities, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

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Upon his arrival to Venezuela, the younger Naranjo was detained again on charges of desertion. He’s now being held at the military prison outside Caracas alongside several opponents of the government.

Meanwhile, migration experts warn that other Venezuelans deserving of asylum could suffer the same fate.

“This is not a shocker,” said Julio Henriquez, a Venezuelan-born immigration attorney in Boston. “It was bound to happen at any moment.”