A Venezuelan military officer who deserted his country’s army to seek asylum in the United States faces deportation this week, back to the government the U.S. claims is a dictatorship that must be punished.
The juxtaposition reveals the perils the Trump administration faces trying to balance President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration polices while pledging to stand with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing President Nicolas Maduro’s government that has driven the nation into economic and humanitarian peril.
First Lt. Helegner Tijera Moreno, 39, the father of a teenage son, faces his last detention hearing on Tuesday and could be deported after spending nearly two years in a New Mexico detention center.
He arrived in September 2016 seeking asylum and was granted a hearing after telling U.S. agents that Venezuelan military intelligence considers him a traitor for speaking out against the Maduro government. According to court documents, he was threatened with jail time after the Venezuelan government charged him with “political militancy.”
Tijera has been scheduled for deportation but immigration officials are meeting Tuesday to make a final decision. It’s possible he could be released and allowed to stay in the United States if the Venezuelan government refuses to take him back.
“I don’t have much time left,” Tijera said, speaking by phone from the immigration detention center in Otero, N.M. “I have so many emotions right now. I’m very nervous. I don’t know what else I can do.”
Tijera has reason to be concerned about returning.
Venezuela’s security forces have arrested and jailed many army officers on suspicion of “rebellion” and “treason.”
The United States, meanwhile, continues to deport Venezuelans while pressing allies in the region to “do more” about the starvation and oppression in Venezuela. More than 100 have been deported since April, when the Trump administration was in Lima, Peru, for the Summit of the Americas and promised to do “everything in our power to support those fleeing tyranny.”
Deportations of Venezuelan increased 36 percent from 182 deportees in 2016 to 248 in 2017. And with two months remaining in Fiscal Year 2018, the United States has already deported 258 Venezuelan nationals in accordance with their final orders of removal, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The administration did not respond to questions about the deportations, but said they’re discussing ways to help Venezuelans who arrive at the border, including the possibility of increasing asylum for Venezuelans.
The fact that Tijera is scheduled to be deported is more surprising considering U.S. precedent providing protections for individuals fleeing government’s seen as enemies of the United States.
“On the world stage, the U.S. government is calling for Maduro’s resignation, slapping sanctions against them and condemning the result of the election, all of these things, and then behind the scenes, they’re coordinating with the same government that they’re railing against to deport him,” said Liz Martinez, the advocacy director for Freedom for Immigrants that has been working with Tijera. “It’s very hypocritical, especially when he’s a deserter of the armed forces of Venezuela who will mostly likely face imprisonment and torture.”
Stephen Yale-Loehr, who has represented military deserters seeking asylum in the United States and co-directs the political asylum clinic at Cornell Law School, said that in the past those who have fled the military from governments of U.S. adversaries such as Russia and Afghanistan have been more likely to gain asylum.
“If you’re fleeing a government that the United States supports, like Canada, you’re more likely to lose asylum,” Yale-Loehr said. “But if you’re fleeing a government like Venezuela that the United States opposes then you’re more likely to win asylum, even if the facts are similar.”
More than 2 million Venezuelans have fled Venezuela amid government mismanagement and record-breaking inflation. The economy has largely collapsed and millions have been left short of food and medicine.
On Wednesday, USAID administrator Mark Green said the world owes Colombia “a debt of gratitude for its willingness” to accommodate the largest number of Venezuelan refugees.
But the deportation of Venezuelans as well as Trump’s overall immigration enforcement policies have raised eyebrows in the region where countries – despite the United States providing tens of millions in humanitarian aid – have privately pushed back against expectations that they must carry the bulk of the burden.
“It’s fine, but why are you not also accepting more Venezuelans,” one South American diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to be frank about U.S. foreign policy.
More Venezuelans are seeking asylum in the U.S. than from any other country. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service says more than 27,600 Venezuelans requested asylum in Fiscal 2017, an almost 400 percent increase over the last two years.
To receive asylum in the United States, applicants must prove they have well-founded fears of persecution based on their political opinion, race, religion, nationality or particular social group.
But it’s not only up to the Trump administration.
Which applicants receive asylum also depends on the backgrounds of judges who hear their cases, what parts of the country the cases are heard in and whether they have lawyers, according to data collected by Freedom of Information requests by immigration attorney Bryan Johnson and TRAC, a Syracuse University program that collects data from the government databases.
The judge handling Tijera’s asylum claim didn’t grant anyone asylum in the past two years and denied asylum to more than 40 people, according to the data.
A senior administration official said each asylum claim is evaluated individually. The U.S. must secure agreement from the receiving government to work out the logistics of his return.
Another senior administration official said the United States must also be careful who receives asylum and can’t create too much of an incentive for people fighting for change to leave the country.
“If all the people who want change are out of the country where does that leave everyone,” the official said. “You have to have change makers in the country to make change. You’re not going to make change sitting in Miami.”
Insulting the president of Venezuela is punishable by six to 30 months of imprisonment. The penalty for desertion in Venezuela is approximately five to seven years in prison. Tijera says he never supported Maduro and refused to chant revolutionary slogans.
The judge who denied Tijera’s asylum request acknowledged he is likely to be prosecuted for having deserted the Venezuelan military and that the government often uses its courts to intimidate and selectively prosecute individuals critical of government policies or actions.
Before coming to the United States, Tijera tried first to move to Ecuador and then Italy where he was denied asylum because they did not consider him a war refugee. He then traveled back to the region and made his way to the U.S. border.
For Tijera, the last two years in detention have been difficult. A friend and ally, Margaret Brown Vega, says he’s swung back from despair and intense anger simply “because he cannot process how he ended up in this situation.”
“I’m not a criminal. I am a moral person of good principles and values. My only problem is I don’t share the politics of the government currently leading my country,” Tijera said.