Juan José Correa Villalonga looked at the envelope, felt its contents and held it close to his chest, but he would not open it. He let his mother do it, because the permanent residence card inside represented long years of her struggles.
And thus, the young Venezuelan became one of the few people who have been deported and later allowed to return to the United States. He is perhaps the only Venezuelan ever to have accomplished this.
“I feel very fortunate for this,” Villalonga said in an interview this week, just days after receiving the green card. “I know there are many people being separated from their families and they never reunite again, so for me this is a blessing.”
His mother, Helene Villalonga, is a well-known activist for human rights and a critic of Hugo Chávez’s government. In 2000, when Juan was 11 years old, the family fled Venezuela because of political persecution. They sought political asylum in the United States but were ripped off by two lawyers who did not represent them properly. The family’s petition was denied.
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Venezuelan exiles, unlike Cubans, do not enjoy special immigration privileges, though officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the number of deportations of Venezuelans had diminished in recent years. According to ICE numbers, more than 400 Venezuelans were deported every year between 2007 and 2010. In 2011, however, the number of deportations dropped to 290.
Villalonga graduated from high school with honors in 2007, was awarded a scholarship, and was accepted into Florida International University — but due to his undocumented status he did not have access to his scholarship funds. After his first semester as a psychology major, he realized he could not continue to pay tuition on his own. Then he decided to go to Canada, where he had also been offered scholarships by several universities.
He drove for six days in his gold Dodge Neon, and was close to the Canadian border when, on June 27, 2009, he stopped on a road in Vermont and was arrested by a highway patrol officer.
“Are you aware that you have a deportation order?” he said the officer asked him.
“I explained to him that my family had an open case of political asylum, but it was there that I learned that there was a deportation order against us and our lawyer never notified us,” Villalonga said.
He went through three prisons in two months and, though his family warned immigration authorities that he would be in danger if he were returned to Venezuela, one night in August he was deported without having time to inform anybody.
He arrived in Caracas at 5 a.m. with $195 in his pocket. Villalonga remembered two telephone numbers of relatives in Venezuela, those of his aunt Ingrid and his grandmother Blanca.
“I knew nothing about Caracas because I had never been there,” said Villalonga, whose family is from Valencia, west of Venezuela’s capital. “But I did know that it is one of the most dangerous cities in South America.”
During the two years Villalonga was in Venezuela, his mother launched a campaign to demonstrate that her son’s life was in danger.
Villalonga said that while in Venezuela he received threats by email. One day when he was alone at his aunt’s house, he heard someone enter the back yard. When he came out to check, he found three armed men wearing red shirts and red berets.
“They gave me a message for my mother, to tell her that she was a traitor to her country and that she should come back to go to jail,” Villalonga said.
Then one of the men hit him on the forehead with the butt of his gun and he fell bleeding.
“But I was strong and could stop the bleeding and call my aunt, who took me to the hospital,” he said.
He was given seven stitches on the right side of his forehead. After that, he stayed in the house. He left his job as an assistant mechanic in his uncle’s shop and stopped visiting relatives, fearing that he would put their lives in jeopardy.
In Miami, Helene Villalonga finally convinced immigration authorities that her son’s life was at risk if he stayed in Venezuela, and persuaded Democratic Congressman Luis Gutiérrez and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lethinen to request that his case be expedited.
“I was not going to give up or stay quiet,” Helene said. “And I hope that my case can serve as an example to other families.”
In 2011, Villalonga returned to South Florida to reunite with his mother, his father Gregorio Correa, and younger siblings Gregorio, Jesús, Luis, and Rossie. During an interview at Miami International Airport, the immigration agent who checked Villalonga’s entry documents asked him to show him the scars of the beating.
“He then said: ‘Welcome home,’ ” Villalonga said. “Before that moment I was still scared because I feared they could still send me back again.”
Villalonga — who is trying to overcome the trauma of prison and the harassment he endured in Venezuela — wants to return to school. Having permanent-resident status gives him peace of mind, he said. “Only a person deprived of his freedom, especially without committing a crime, can understand what it feels like,” Villalonga said. “At last I feel that I belong somewhere, that I should not have fear of being detained, that I no longer live in limbo.”