Several Democratic senators called on the Trump administration to stop "egregious" policies denying asylum and sending people fleeing dictatorships in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua back to their countries to face retaliation.
"The Administration's policies to expel and endanger refugees and asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and other countries send a message of callousness, cruelty, and disregard for human rights that feeds our adversaries' agenda to cast doubt on the United States' exceptional role as a beacon of freedom and democracy," Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., wrote in a letter to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Monday.
Between October last year and March 2020, the latest data available, 64% of the asylum claims made by Cubans and 61% of the claims made by Nicaraguans were denied, according to data from the immigration courts obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
Forty-five percent of those made by Venezuelans fleeing the largest humanitarian crisis in the region were also denied. And a staggering 89% of asylum seekers from Haiti, a country not mentioned in the letter but struggling with poverty, gang violence and political instability, had their cases rejected by U.S. immigration judges.
Even political dissidents and activists have been denied entry at the border. Former Cuban political prisoner Ramon Arbolaez Abreu, who is battling advanced cancer, was denied both his asylum request and a humanitarian visa to get treatment at Jackson Memorial Hospital, NBC Latino reported.
While the Trump administration has condemned the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, labeled as the "troika of tyranny" by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, it continues deporting their citizens. The senators said these actions might violate U.S. law prohibiting returning refugees to a place where their lives would be endangered.
"The Trump administration has taken the egregious step of sending Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and others directly back into the hands of the persecutors and torturers they fled," the senators wrote. "We urge you to end these policies immediately and to uphold the right to seek asylum in the United States."
According to the letter, in fiscal year 2020, which began last October, the United States has deported more than 100 Venezuelans, more than 1,300 Cubans, and nearly 1,000 Nicaraguans, most without criminal convictions. The TRAC data is only through this past February. DHS did not answer a request for updated figures.
The senators were especially concerned with the Remain in Mexico policy, which allows immigration authorities to send back asylum seekers to wait in that country until their cases are decided. Despite being formally called "Migrant Protection Protocols," the writers of the letter said, the policy forces refugees to live in "Mexico's most violent cities, where they are reportedly preyed upon by organized criminal groups who extort and kidnap them for ransom."
They quoted a Miami Herald article reporting that between June and November 2019, 7,362 Cubans were returned to Mexico under those protocols.
They also cited a report by Human Rights First tracking at least 1,114 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against migrants returned to Mexico by the Trump administration.
"We are troubled by reports that Venezuelan women and girls arriving at the U.S. border - who had the courage to flee dictatorship and to escape criminal violence and human trafficking by illegal armed groups - are now being pushed back by the Trump administration to face similar threats of organized crime and violence in Mexico," the senators said, adding that that was "simply unconscionable."
The administration has also resisted calls to grant Venezuelans Temporary Protected Status that would allow them to live and work in the United States. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to do so if elected in November.
Asked why the administration continues sending Venezuelans back to their troubled country, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said U.S. policy focuses on regime change.
"If we could get democracy back to Venezuela, you wouldn't have these flows of asylum seekers," he said in an interview with the Miami Herald in August. "It can't just be that if there's a problem in a nation, the answer is to go to the United States. Other great countries in the hemisphere must also be a destination."
An estimated 5 million Venezuelans are currently living in neighboring countries.
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