U.S. hits Nicaragua-bound charter flight operators with visa sanctions

The Biden administration issued visa restrictions Tuesday against individuals running charter flights into Nicaragua from Cuba and Haiti, making good on a promise to crack down on those facilitating an unprecedented wave of Cuban and Haitian migrants using the Central American country as a springboard to the United States.

The State Department did not say who exactly would be blocked from traveling to the United States, but told McClatchy and the Miami Herald that the new policy authorizes the department to take steps to impose visa restrictions “on appropriate targets, including owners, executives, and/or senior officials of companies providing charter flights to Nicaragua who intend to irregularly migrate to the United States.”

The Nicaragua-bound trips are usually operated by travel agencies that have been known, in the case of Cuban migrants, to sell tickets in Hialeah. After securing the charters, they charge passengers thousands of dollars for the one-way trip from Havana to Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua. After arriving, passengers are charged for a tourist card by the government of Nicaragua, which also assesses landing fees that can cost at least $10,000 per aircraft. Some of the airplanes are owned by U.S. companies but leased by foreign nationals and U.S. green card holders, who are not affected by the visa restrictions.

The growing trend, which comes during a historic surge in U.S.-bound migrants in the hemisphere, has led critics to accuse the regime of Nicaragua leader Daniel Ortega of “weaponizing” migration both for profit and as a foreign policy tool against the U.S., which has issued sanctions against many of his officials.

“The State Department’s new visa restriction policy targets those facilitating charter flights into Nicaragua that exploit migrants hoping to cross the U.S. border. This is one of several ongoing actions to end this abusive practice & protect migrants,” Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols said Tuesday afternoon on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Earlier this month, after the Miami Herald and others reported about the growing migration scheme, Nichols warned there would be consequences for those involved in the charter flights.

Nicaragua has long been used as a bridge by Cubans to get to the U.S., with Venezuelan state-owned airline Conviasa running charters from Havana to Managua to help migrants reach the U.S. Mexico border. But in recent months, the crush of migrants has expanded to include tens of thousands of Haitians after Ortega suspended visa requirements for nationals of the troubled country. Paying upwards of $4,000 per person, Haitians boarded flights from both international airports in Haiti, as well as in the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos. Once they arrived in Managua, they paid traffickers to help facilitate their journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nicaragua’s growing role in the ongoing migration crisis through the hemisphere has been a concern for both the governments of the United States and Mexico, and was raised in discussions this week between the leaders of the two countries when they met in San Francisco.

The White House said both President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador “discussed the need for all countries in the region to do their part to humanely manage migration, and they agreed to work together to address the actions that Nicaragua and certain private sector entities are taking to facilitate irregular migration for profit.”

The U.S. noted that nearly 300,000 people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela have come legally to the United States through a new humanitarian parole program, which has led to “a dramatic and sustained drop in irregular migration” at the U.S. Mexico border.

Still, the hemisphere is seeing a massive flow in asylum seekers trying to make it to the border, despite efforts from the Biden administration and other regional governments to deter them.

International observers have raised the alarm that record numbers of migrants are crossing the Darien Gap, a dangerous jungle that separates Colombia and Panama. Over 458,000 crossers have made their way to Panama this year, according to the statistics from the country’s government. Over half of them are Venezuelan, followed by Ecuadorians and Haitians. At the same time, a massive number of migrants are bypassing the dangerous jungle and flying directly into Central American countries.

El Salvador, for example, recently slapped a $1,000 fee plus tax on passengers from more than 50 African countries and India who have been flying into its international airport, using the country as a layover on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said it will continue to deport migrants who have no legal basis for entering the U.S.

“During each of the past two weeks, we have conducted over thirty repatriation flights transporting thousands of individuals back to their country of origin and have repatriated over five thousand individuals directly to Mexico,” DHS said.

The agency noted that the administration has established pathways for migrants to legally come to the United States, including the two-year humanitarian parole program for nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Still, with a backlog of over 1 million migrants waiting to receive permission to travel, many have decided to take their chances and fly to Nicaragua and then make their way to Mexico with the help of traffickers, where they then request an interview at the U.S. border using a newly launched smartphone application.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Kristie Canegallo warned that migrants should not “listen to the lies of smugglers. Individuals who cross unlawfully won’t be eligible for these lawful pathways and will be removed if they have no legal basis to remain.”

Earlier this month, Haiti suspended the Nicaragua-bound flights. By the time of the suspension, at least 31,000 Haitians had made the journey onboard 268 flights.

In response to the decision to end the flights, several flight organizers in Haiti sued the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, arguing that the decision was made unilaterally “without taking into account the expenses incurred in millions of American dollars by the applicants and others.”

On Sunday, Ortega, who governs Nicaragua alongside his wife, Rosario Murillo, announced his country’s formal withdrawal from the Organization of American States. The State Department called it “another step away from democracy.”

The move “further isolates Nicaragua from the international community,” U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller wrote on X.