“I am happy… I am free”: the SPLC obtains asylum for a Nicaraguan
Warning: This article contains graphic depictions of violence that may trigger some readers.
When they arrived at the southern border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, border agents separated Marco from his brother and forced them to live in a separate room. hellera – more commonly known as “the cooler,” where migrants wait in freezing temperatures before being handed over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I was put in hellera for six days,” Marco said. “We were given very little food and there were so many people that I couldn’t sit down and couldn’t walk. They gave me a foil blanket to keep me warm, but it was very cold and we only had an hour to sleep.
After the sixth day, Marco – whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity – was sent to an immigrant prison in El Paso, Texas, where he remained until he was transferred to the Stewart’s detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia, known as the “black hole” of the US immigration system due to its infamous living conditions and remote location.
Marco — an agricultural engineer who had worked in the northern part of Nicaragua — had fled his home country to escape violent political persecution there. He arrived in Stewart on July 17, 2021.
While many immigrants are released on bail, on parole, or on their own recognizance, Marco was less fortunate because ICE detained him and refused to consider him for release for several months.
ICE had chosen to ignore orders for a trial – Fraihat c. ECI — which the SPLC filed with co-counsel on April 19, 2019. The lawsuit says that while many of the immigrants could have been legally released on parole or bail, ICE chose to detain them instead.
As a result, thousands of people have suffered in detention, with many abandoning viable immigration applications and accepting deportation out of a desperate desire to be released or to obtain necessary medical treatment.
ICE’s failures, the lawsuit says, violate immigrants’ rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Additionally, Marco and his brother had presented themselves at a designated port of entry under asylum law – but ICE chose to detain them anyway.
Marco’s brother was released from custody almost immediately. But Marco was detained for another five months before being granted asylum – a rare victory for migrants – after Peter Isbister, lead attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project that offers free representation immigrants threatened with deportation. procedure – took on Marco’s case.
“Once we promised him a lawyer and the pro bono lawyer was unable to keep his file, SIFI had an ethical obligation to ensure that Marco had legal representation at his trial,” said Isbister. “That’s what our SIFI program is all about – to make sure our clients aren’t left to face the injustice of the immigration justice system alone. We believe that for our country to be a beacon for democracy, we must be a haven for political dissidents around the world.
The system of government
In Nicaragua, Marco’s brother-in-law was kidnapped by police and imprisoned after protesting against Nicaragua’s violent Sandinista regime. Marco was therefore petrified. Both men were outspoken opponents of the regime. In May 2021, the Nicaraguan government arrested citizens it considered adversaries and murdered them in public.
Under Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, police wanted Marco’s brother-in-law to confess to charges of terrorism and vandalism, simply for protesting. While in custody, he was tortured and psychologically abused. The police told him that they had infiltrated his and Marco’s house to obtain evidence proving that the two men were traitors.
“They called us putschists, terrorists and traitors, because we support the sanctions imposed by the United States on the regime of Daniel Ortega and because we have raised our voices in protest against the human rights violations committed by the diet,” Marco said.
In 2018, Marco and about 1,500 other Nicaraguan citizens marched in protest against the regime in Estelí, Nicaragua, after a man in his twenties was shot in the head and killed in broad daylight inside a church. for protesting against the regime itself.
“More people were shot that day,” Marco said. “The police have the freedom to kill whoever they want, even those who only criticize the government.”
“I had hope”
On June 15, 2021, Marco made the difficult decision to flee Nicaragua with his younger brother. He could not bring his wife and children.
“Knowing that at any time someone can come to your door to hurt you, kill you, it’s very difficult,” Marco said. “I couldn’t sleep at home because I didn’t know when someone would show up to harm my family. I couldn’t defend them if that happened. How do you protect your family against a government that uses firearms to publicly kill its citizens? »
Marco and his brother crossed the borders of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala on a 24-hour bus ride. Then they arrived at the US-Mexico border with the hope of seeking asylum.
After ICE detained Marco in Stewart, he feared he would be deported back to Nicaragua, where certain death awaited him, he said.
But on December 13, 2021, Isbister argued for more than three hours with the immigration judge in Stewart that Marco would be persecuted in Nicaragua because he had already been persecuted there and had a well-founded fear of future persecution.
“I thought positively,” Marco said. “I had hope – finally. My lawyer was confident in my case.
The immigration judge granted Marco asylum – a highly unusual victory for migrants nationwide – and an even less likely outcome for Stewart.
In 2019, the Center for Victims of Torture reported that all Stewart judges have rejected at least 94% of asylum claims – the highest removal rate in the country. The SPLC reported the same year that only 2% of immigrants trapped in Stewart were granted asylum.
Marco remained locked up for another month, until January 5, when he was finally released for asylum. He knew he was lucky but says it was his faith that saved him.
“When someone tries to be a good person, God always blesses you,” he said. “For those seeking refuge, have faith in God. He saved me, the hand of God. With him, there is always a victory.
Isbister described Marco’s trip to the United States as one of risk and sacrifice.
“He deserved asylum because everyone deserves to live in safety and dignity,” Isbister said.
Marco is now in the Midwest with his brother. His first priority is to find a way to bring his family to the United States. He also plans to learn English and work – hopefully the same kind of work he did in his home country. The SIFI supported him in his application for a work permit.
“I felt like I was born again,” Marco said. “I was and very much appreciate all – all. I was so grateful for the support of my lawyers. Now I am happy – very happy. I am happy. I’m free.”
Top photo: Marco — an agricultural engineer who had worked in the northern part of Nicaragua — had fled his home country to escape violent political persecution. (Credit: Real Artist)