APNewsBreak: Expelled Venezuela diplomat stays in US

May 31, 2018 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) — A senior Venezuelan diplomat expelled by the Trump administration last week in retaliation for President Nicolas Maduro’s kicking out of the top American diplomat in Caracas has remained in the U.S. despite an order to leave the country within 48 hours.

Jarlet Sanchez, a career diplomat who had been serving as Venezuela’s deputy consul general in Houston, was declared persona non grata May 23 in retaliation for Maduro’s decision to kick out charge d’affaires Todd Robinson in the immediate aftermath of his re-election.


But a U.S. official and another individual familiar with the case said Sanchez has yet to depart. The two people spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

Foreign diplomats in the U.S. who don’t abide by orders to leave can be forcibly expelled, according to longstanding legal opinion of the U.S. Justice Department.

But The Associated Press has learned that Sanchez is hoping to stay in the United States permanently by applying for a green card under an obscure provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act. That provision, known as Section 13, says that people who enter the U.S. as diplomats can apply for a change in their immigration status and, if it is granted, obtain permanent residency.

The provision was created during the Cold War and was used by some diplomats from Eastern Bloc states who sought to defect.

Sanchez hung up when reached on a Houston cell phone number by an AP reporter.

Further complicating Sanchez’s status is the fact that he appears to have been removed from his post. A diplomatic note from the Venezuelan foreign ministry to the U.S. State Department dated May 29 — six days after Sanchez was declared persona non grata — said the diplomat no longer occupied his post. The note, a copy of which was obtained by the AP, said Sanchez no longer formed part of the Venezuelan diplomatic corps and therefore not entitled to diplomatic immunity and other privileges inherent to his posting.

Experts said Sanchez’s case appears to be an outlier that falls in a gray area of the law, which may explain the uncertainty around his current status in the U.S. Although the Venezuelan government has renounced his diplomatic status, Section 13 only requires that individuals entered the U.S. as diplomats, even if their diplomatic visas have lapsed.


But the requirements also state that to be eligible, individuals must have “compelling reasons” why they can’t return to their home country, don’t pose a risk to U.S. welfare and security, and that admitting them advances U.S. interests. The fact that Sanchez has been declared unwelcome in the U.S. and ordered to leave suggests that may be a difficult argument for him to make.

“It’s going to be discretionary,” said Ur Jaddou, the former chief counsel for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who now leads the watchdog project DHS Watch. “You have to prove there’s a compelling reason. It’s not a right.”

Sanchez and another Venezuelan diplomat in Washington were expelled after Maduro accused the charge d’affaires Robinson and his deputy, Brian Naranjo, of conspiring against the socialist government by pressuring Venezuela’s opposition to boycott a presidential election he easily won but which the U.S. has condemned as a “sham” because his main opponents weren’t allowed to run. The two countries haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

A spokesman for Venezuela’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. The State Department declined to say whether Sanchez is still in the country or comment on his status.

“We will continue to resolve this situation in accordance with applicable provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and consistent with U.S. immigration law,” the department said.

If Sanchez does manage to stay in the country, one possibility for the U.S. government is to select another Venezuelan official to kick out instead. That would ensure parity in the tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats that has played out between Washington and Caracas.

Former colleagues of Sanchez described him as one of the last remaining diplomats who entered Venezuela’s foreign service before leftist Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999 and packed key diplomatic posts with loyalists.

Earlier this year, he marked 19 years in Venezuela’s foreign service, according to his Facebook profile, showing him in exotic locations around the world — from the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, to the ancient stone carvings in Petra, Jordan. The State Department recognized his status in Houston in February 2015.

“I’ve had a ton of experiences, challenges and have a lot to tell,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “I thank God for everything — my family, colleagues and friends — who’ve made this amazing adventure possible.”


AP writer Scott Smith contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela. Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.