Nov 25 Reuters -- The United States deported a record number of Nicaraguan migrants this year, according to data reviewed by the Reuters show, as people flee the Central American country to escape a crackdown against dissent by President Daniel Ortega.
Erlinton Ortiz was deported last year, one of over 5,000 Nicaraguans returned from the United States since 2019, into the hands of an administration that Washington has accused of civil rights abuses, corruption and holding sham elections.
Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla and Cold War antagonist of the United States, argues that he is defending Nicaragua from adversaries plotting with foreign powers to oust him.
Ortiz fled to Nicaragua in 2019 to seek U.S. asylum after university friends told him he had helped organize anti-Ortega protests and was thrown into a jail that critics say is used to torture political prisoners.
Ortiz was expelled after appearing before a judge in New York, rather than receiving a sympathetic ear to his plight.
Manuel Orozco, a migration expert at Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said the United States needs to bring asylum decisions in line with its foreign policy on Nicaragua, which President Joe Biden has been accused of repressive and abusive acts. His administration ordered members of the Nicaraguan government from entering the United States in response to an election it said was rigged in favor of Ortega.
Nicaraguan asylum seekers face different threats from other Central American countries, where rampant crime and poverty, rather than party politics, forces migrants to go to the United States, Orozco said.
There is a U.S. law that asylum seekers cannot get U.S. residency because they are fleeing gang violence. They have to convince authorities they have credible fears of being persecuted on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, or political opinions.
In Nicaragua, it's about state terrorism, Orozco said.
The White House did not reply to a request for comment.
The number of Nicaraguan immigration cases waiting to be heard by judges has gone from 4,145 in 2018, to over 34,000 last month, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse TRACS, a research group at Syracuse University.
Over 19,000 of those cases were added this year, a record.
Over 60% of deportation proceedings for Nicaraguans resulted in removal from the United States in the year 2019 when over 14,000 deportation cases were filed.
Only 1,253 Nicaraguans were allowed to stay in the United States, and many cases from 2019 are unresolved, according to TRACS data.
After five months in detention centers for his hearing, Ortiz was deported to Nicaragua in January 2020 after a brief appearance before a New York judge. He said he had no lawyer, did not understand why he was deported, and destroyed his U.S. court documents so that Nicaraguan authorities could not use them against him.
When he arrived in Nicaragua he was taken to an interrogation room where police told him he would be charged with terrorism and that he should wait an appointment with police at his parents' home, he said.
Ortiz escaped to a safe house and left Nicaragua to try his luck a second time, seeking U.S. asylum. He was paroled in July and is waiting for his next hearing in California.
Nicaragua's government did not respond to requests for comment about the case.
The numbers show that over 50,000 Nicaraguans tried to cross the U.S. border illegally in 2021, up from 2,291 in 2020, according to Customs and Border Protection data.
Nicaraguans once made up a tiny fraction of the migrants in U.S. immigration courts. Annual deportation filings were below 5,000 for decades. The data from TRACS shows that it had the sixth-highest number in the fiscal year 2021, just behind Mexico.
Astrid Montealegre, lawyer and president of the Nicaraguan American Human Rights Alliance, said that not all of the U.S. judges know what's going on in the country, country conditions, and they may confuse Nicaragua with the Northern Triangle countries.
They are automatically doing deportation. An official at the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review at the U.S. Justice Department said immigration judges look at all evidence submitted by both parties and adjudicate asylum claims case-by-case.