Mark Tuschman, Cindy Knoebel, Letitia Morales and Peg Spak each contributed to this article
Many young people, ages 14 to 20, are fleeing Nicaragua for their lives because President Daniel Ortega, using paramilitary street gangs and the military, has killed hundreds of young people since the start of the protests of April, 2018. And hundreds, if not thousands, of children and young people are missing.
The Nicaraguan government, working with a corrupt police force, is sending young people with credible evidence of torture and rape to jail. The government recently freed around one hundred of these political prisoners during June and July. However, fearing for their safety, many of them immediately went into hiding in ‘safe houses’ At any moment they could be rounded up by the police, tortured, sent back to jail, or simply disappear. Some of these young people have made the arduous journey north to seek asylum in the United States.
Carmen*, who fled Nicaragua in 1986 and was granted asylum, personally helped three of these young men come to the U.S. to seek asylum. They traveled through Honduras and Guatemala to Tijuana where they presented themselves to United States immigration agents and requested asylum. Jonathan Rayo Lopez, one of the young asylum seekers, called Carmen with a harrowing report of how he was treated by immigration agents.
After telling his story of torture and abuse in Nicaragua to immigration agents, together with pictures to document the torture, Jonathan was sent to a detention facility. There, he was punched in the head by one of the guards. According to Carmen, Jonathan told the guard that he was going to tell the media that asylum seekers are being abused in custody. The guard replied, “I don’t care, you are not going to get political asylum. I am going to deport you back to your country." Jonathan then said, “If you deport me back to my country the government is going to kill me and you will be responsible for my death." The guard was surprised and asked, “Who told you to talk to me like that?” Jonathan replied “No one told me. I read the United States Constitution and it says that the U.S. is supposed to open its doors for people coming from a different country and seeking refuge."
Jonathan told Carmen that the guard became angry and said, “I don’t care what you say, I am the person who decides if you go back to your country or I send you to jail." Jonathan responded, “OK put me in the jail, but don’t deport me to my country." Jonathan said the guard then asked him to sign a paper in English. He refused saying, “I am not signing anything because I don’t speak any English and I don’t read English." The guard said, “I don’t care, you sign the paper." When Jonathan refused, the guard put him on his knees, made him put his hands on his head, and forced him to look at the wall for an hour. At the end of the hour, another “immigration agent” came in and immediately questioned what the other guard had done. At that point, Carmen said, Jonathan again stated that according to the Constitution of the United States he should be given refuge. After being detained for a day, he was then given an appointment to see an immigration judge on October 29th in Tijuana.
Other young men who were also seeking asylum in the United States from Nicaragua under similar circumstances were not so fortunate. Between December 2018 and early August 2019, more than 600 Nicaraguans have been deported. In the first week of August, according to one news report, the United States deported 107 Nicaraguans, many of whom were young men and women. The report states that the Nicaraguan police only reported 50 deportees; eighteen were handed over to relatives and, while thirty-two were supposedly transferred to the Directorate of Judicial Assistance (DAJ). But the DAJ only reported receiving eight. So what happened to the rest?
The massive unrest in Nicaragua began on April 18, 2018 when the government decided to raise social security taxes and reduce pensions; people took to the streets all over Nicaragua to protest. At least 26 protesters were killed. Hundreds of activists were arrested in the months following the protest and approximately 300 people died, according to a 2018 report by the United Nations' OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights). Another disturbing report documents the stories of 28 children ages 5 to 17 who fell victim to the regime's brutality.
A 2018 Human Rights Watch report noted that "Many of the people detained during the crackdown on protests were subject to serious abuses that in some cases amounted to torture—including electric shocks, severe beatings, fingernail removal, asphyxiation, and rape." Some of those released were later sent back to jail after being prosecuted for crimes for which little credible evidence existed, the report says.
An estimated 80,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country, many to neighboring Costa Rica. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 8,000 refugee requests were received in the four months following the protests.
Sadly, those seeking asylum in the U.S. face a hostile immigration system. First hand reports of conditions at immigration detention centers cite numerous cases of medical and physical abuse, unsanitary condition and rotten food, In July, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General issued a report detailing in the Rio Grande Valley noting "serious overcrowding and prolonged detention for adults." At some facilities, children had no access to showers or hot meals, and limited access to a change of clothes. Photos included in the report show children crammed int0 wire pens clutching foil "blankets."
The Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" program has only worsened the situation for Nicaraguan asylum seekers. According to a recent L.A. Times article, more than 50,000 Central American migrants have been deported to Mexico this year to await their court hearings.
Men, women and children pursuing their right to seek seeking asylum in the US are now being forced to live in dangerous, squalid conditions in Mexican border towns where legal assistance is scarce. Some have been sent to locations far from the border.
On October 18 Amnesty International launched a campaign, "What we left behind: Fleeing Oppression in Nicaragua." The campaign will include petitions, events and the sharing of information and audiovisual materials containing the testimonies of people who have fled the country in the wake of the crisis, in order to highlight the human rights violations that continue to take place in Nicaragua. It will also include actions on Nicaraguan human rights defenders and journalists.
While public condemnation of civil and human rights abuses in Nicaragua has been loud and clear, they've largely fallen on deaf ears within President Ortega's regime. Meanwhile, Nicaraguans continue to languish in immigration detention facilities and struggle to survive in Mexico border towns, holding fast to their dreams of a better, safer life in America.
Meanwhile, Jonathan remains in limbo in Tijuana, with only 4 days remaining until his hearing.
*Last name withheld for privacy purposes
Mark Tuschman is a social documentary photographer. During the past 18 months he has been documenting immigrants’ stories along with their portraits that have been displayed at several venues in the San Francisco Bay area and will be traveling throughout the country. Carmen is one of the people he recently interviewed and photographed. She came to the United States in 1989, was granted asylum, and is currently a U.S. citizen. For more information about Mark's work, please visit https://immigrantsareus.org.