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‘I’m happy … I’m free’: SPLC wins asylum for Nicaraguan man released from ‘black hole’ immigrant prison

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence that may trigger some readers.

When they arrived at the southern border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, border officials separated Marco from his brother and forced each into a separate hielera — more commonly known as “the ice box,” where migrants wait in frigid temperatures before being released to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“I was put in the hielera for six days,” Marco said. “We were given very little food, and it was so crowded that I couldn’t sit, and I couldn’t walk. They gave me an aluminum blanket to use for warmth, but it was freezing — and we were only given one hour to sleep.”

After the sixth day, Marco – whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity – was shipped to an immigrant prison in El Paso, Texas, where he remained until he was transferred to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, known as the “black hole” of the U.S. immigration system due to its infamous living conditions and its 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 at Stewart on July 17, 2021.

While many immigrants are released from detention on bond, 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 the orders of a lawsuit — Fraihat v. ICEthat the SPLC filed with co-counsel on April 19, 2019. The lawsuit states that while many immigrants could have been legally released on parole or with a bond, ICE chose to detain them instead.

As a result, thousands suffered in detention, and many abandoned viable immigration claims and accepted deportation out of a desperate desire to be released or to obtain necessary medical care.

ICE’s failures, according to the lawsuit, violate immigrants’ rights under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. What’s more, Marco and his brother had presented themselves at a designated port of entry in compliance with asylum law – but ICE chose to detain them anyway.

Marco’s brother was released from detention almost immediately. But Marco was detained another five months before he was granted asylum – a rare victory for migrants – after Peter Isbister, senior lead attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project that provides free representation for immigrants facing removal proceedings – took on Marco’s case.  

“Once we had promised him a lawyer, and the volunteer attorney was unable to keep his case, SIFI had an ethical obligation to ensure Marco had legal representation at his trial,” Isbister said. “That is what our SIFI program is all about – making sure our clients are not abandoned to face the unfairness of the immigration court system on their own. We believe that for our country to be a beacon for democracy, we must be a refuge for political dissidents from around the world.”

The regime

In Nicaragua, Marco’s brother-in-law was kidnapped by police and held in prison after protesting Nicaragua’s violent Sandinista regime, so Marco was petrified. Both men were outspoken opponents of the regime. In May 2021, the Nicaraguan government rounded up citizens whom they viewed as adversaries and murdered them in public.

Under Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, the 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 they had infiltrated his and Marco’s home to obtain evidence to prove both men were traitors.

“They called us coup plotters, terrorists and traitors, because we support the sanctions the United States has imposed on the Daniel Ortega regime and because we’ve raised our voices to protest human rights abuses committed by the regime,” Marco said.

In 2018, Marco and roughly 1,500 other Nicaraguan citizens marched in protest of the regime in Estelí, Nicaragua, after a man in his 20s was shot in the head and killed in broad daylight at a church for protesting against the regime himself.

“More people were shot that day,” Marco said. “The police have the freedom to kill anyone they want, even those who just criticize the government.”

‘I had hope’

On June 15, 2021, Marco made the difficult decision to flee Nicaragua with his younger brother. He couldn’t bring his wife and children.

“To know that at any moment, someone can come to your door to hurt you, to kill you, is 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 during a 24-hour bus ride. Then they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border with the hope of seeking asylum.

After ICE detained Marco at Stewart, he feared he would be returned to Nicaragua, where certain death awaited him, he said.

But on Dec. 13, 2021, Isbister argued for over three hours to the immigration judge at Stewart that Marco would be persecuted in Nicaragua, because he had suffered persecution there previously and had a well-founded fear of future persecution.

“I was thinking positively,” Marco said. “I had hope — finally. My attorney felt confident about my case.”

The immigration judge granted Marco asylum — a very unusual win for migrants nationwide — and an even less likely outcome at Stewart.

In 2019, the Center for Victims of Torture reported that all judges at Stewart denied at least 94% of asylum cases – the highest removal rate in the country. The SPLC reported the same year that only 2% of immigrants trapped at Stewart were granted asylum.

Marco remained locked up for another month, until Jan. 5, when he was finally released on asylum. He knew he was lucky but says his faith is what saved him.

“When someone tries to be a good person, God always blesses you,” he said. “For those seeking their refuge, have faith in God. He saved me, the hand of God. With him, there is always a victory.”

Isbister described Marco’s journey to the U.S. as one of risk and sacrifice.

“He deserved asylum, because all people deserve 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 to work – hopefully the same kind of work he did in his home country. SIFI has assisted him in applying for a work permit.

“I felt like I was born again,” Marco said. “I was and am very appreciative of everything — everything. I was just so grateful for the support of my attorneys. Now I’m happy — very happy. I’m content. I’m free.”

Top picture: Marco — an agricultural engineer who had worked in the northern part of Nicaragua — had fled his home country to escape violent political persecution there. (Credit: True Artist)