He wears an orange prison uniform and a collar that supports his neck.
In a video call from an immigration detention center in Texas, Ricardo Villasmil, 23, says he suffers from severe cervical neck pain as a result of the mistreatment he received from Venezuelan authorities when he was deported from the United States in October 2021.
“I told them to please help me, that I couldn’t get up, but they just looked at me and said: 'Don’t you come from the United States? Ask Biden for help now!'” he recounted about his arrival in Venezuela. “In the midst of so much harassment, I simply lost consciousness.”
Villasmil was one of dozens deported to Venezuela through the Dominican Republic. Without diplomatic relations with the Maduro regime, U.S. immigration authorities are using third countries, such as the Caribbean island or Colombia, to expel Venezuelan migrants, as revealed by Noticias Telemundo Investiga. This practice, established during the Trump administration, has been condemned by pro-immigrant organizations. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a recent statement that it's “is extremely disturbing” and can lead to “harsh consequences” for Venezuelans who are sent back.
Noticias Telemundo Investiga spoke with three deportees who reported that, upon arrival in Venezuela, they were interrogated and subjected to violence and persecution by Venezuelan officials. They said that at all times they were treated like this because they were deported from the U.S.
They all clandestinely left the country again and are now looking for a new opportunity to convince the U.S. of why they should be given asylum.
The Venezuelan government did not respond to requests for comment from Noticias Telemundo Investiga.
'They said I was an infiltrator from the United States'
Villasmil, who was deported via two commercial flights in October 2021, says his ordeal started all over again upon arrival at the Maiquetía Airport, which serves Caracas, when officials questioned him.
“They said that I was being an infiltrator to pass information from the Maduro government to the United States, that the United States was financing my stay in Venezuela to pass information to him,” he recounts three months later with a collar protecting his cervical vertebrae.
The young man says that they made him place his head between his knees. “I was in that position for more than seven hours. They poured cold water on me — it was like not leaving marks. They hit me in the head, they choked me," he said.
At one point, he said, he fell to the ground and the jokes began: “You can’t stand anything, you were detained for four months in the United States, hold on” and “You don’t come from the United States? Ask Biden for help now,” he said.
“We welcome you with the same thing that happened to you”
The two other Venezuelans who are not being identified by Noticias Telemundo Investiga for fear of reprisals described similar situations when they arrived after being deported from the U.S.
One of them explained that he was persecuted for days, mistreated and still has injuries months later. The other deportee said that the first thing officials told him is he'd be welcomed with the same type of beating that left him badly wounded years ago when he was detained for political reasons.
Villasmil said he lost count of the hours while he was under arrest until he lost consciousness: “I couldn’t take it anymore and I fainted.” He woke up in a public hospital, apparently freed, and some time later, a doctor diagnosed him with cervical neuritis due to that abuse.
He was reunited with his partner in Venezuela, Daniela Viloria. According to the couple, groups organized and financed by the government, also known as collectives, had been looking for them for weeks. They threatened him and Daniela, already pregnant, at gunpoint in the middle of the street, Villasmil said.
“He pointed a gun at me and they asked Daniela how she feels (knowing) that her son is going to grow up without a father," he said tearfully. "From there I thought: I can’t allow my son to be in the same way I grew up — without my dad."
Villasmil said he fled Venezuela in 2008 after his father was murdered and the rest of the family was persecuted due to their opposition to the government of the late president, Hugo Chávez. His mother, his stepfather and the rest of his siblings did manage to start their asylum process in the U.S. and are now free.
Due to recent direct threats, Villasmil left the country again and once again sought asylum in the U.S. This time, along with his pregnant wife, they crossed the Mexico-U.S. border and were stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol, which separated them.
“I said: I am pregnant, this is my husband. And the voice of the Border Patrol said, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, you enter as single adults,’ his wife, Daniela Viloria, 24, told Noticias Telemundo Investiga.
Viloria was released by the immigration authorities to continue her asylum process in freedom. Villasmil remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement with the hope that, this time, officials will consider the political persecution he says he suffers in Venezuela to be true.
In his video call, Villasmil recounted the fear that he experienced when he was deported to his country, with details that he avoided giving when he was still in Venezuelan territory and spoke for the first time with Noticias Telemundo Investiga in December last year.
'I was willing to spend as long as it was in detention'
Villasmil is not the only Venezuelan deportee looking for a new opportunity in the U.S. They all have in common that they were deported on commercial flights unbeknownst to other passengers, dressed in civilian clothes with ICE agents without visible identification — and through the Dominican Republic.
During the last fiscal year, ICE deported, on average, a Venezuelan every two days, according to figures that the agency provided to Noticias Telemundo Investiga.
In an interview at the end of December 2021, immigration attorney Elio Vázquez said that Venezuelans who have been previously deported can still fight for a “cancellation of deportation" and the possibility of U.S. asylum because their life is in danger.
Michael Linares, a 35-year-old Venezuelan who left his country for political reasons, was also previously deported and like Villasmil, crossed the border again in search of a second chance.
Linares said that the Border Patrol agents were surprised when he said that he was deported through the Dominican Republic, as if they were unaware that this was happening. He spent five days in an ICE detention center, then released, and now he's in the process of seeking asylum.
“I was willing to spend whatever time it was in detention, really. Because the fear I have of returning to my country is terrible. And now I feel happy to be with my wife, with my daughter, with my family,” Linares said, reunited with his family after more than half a year apart.
'We ask that these cases be reopened'
The Venezuelan American community is mobilizing to help deportees who are trying again to seek U.S. asylum.
“We do not want a Venezuelan brother to die because this country mistakenly deported him to Venezuela without taking into account the highly risky situations for Venezuelans' lives," community organizer Edison Calderón said.
He stressed that the U.S. is among the dozens of nations that don't recognize the Maduro government as legitimate. “We ask that these cases be reopened, taken into account, studied very meticulously,” Calderón, who obtained U.S. asylum, said.
“They return to the U.S. because we have no other option to protect our lives," he said of the deportees.
The State Department considers Venezuela to be “an illegitimate and authoritarian regime” whose authorities commit crimes against humanity.
For this reason, deportations through third countries have raised criticism.
“Under Maduro’s cruel regime, Venezuelans who are deported face a bleak future and in many cases suffer harsh consequences for seeking political asylum in the United States,” Menendez said in his recent statement.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden condemned the practice of deporting Venezuelans through third-party countries. Noticias Telemundo Investiga contacted the Biden White House regarding the deportation of Venezuelans but did not receive a response.
An earlier version of this article was first published on Noticias Telemundo.
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