(NEW YORK) — Last month, the door to Yubrank Suazo’s cell in a Nicaraguan prison flung open in the middle of the night as officers told him to put on his clothes and gather his personal items. Recalling that moment in a recent interview, Suazo said the officers did not tell him or the other 221 prisoners they gathered in similar fashion where they were going, even as they put them on busses with covered windows.
“I thought I was going to be transferred to another cell or another prison,” Suazo told ABC News this week. “I never imagined I was going to be liberated.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government released those 222 people and sent them to the U.S. on Feb. 9.
The group included political prisoners like Suazo, an opposition leader who was detained after organizing protests. A senior Biden administration official said at the time that the Nicaraguan government had “decided unilaterally” to end their detention and the U.S. “facilitated transportation of those individuals once released.”
The release of the prisoners has reignited calls from advocates for President Joe Biden’s administration to redesignate and extend Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for thousands of Nicaraguans who may be at risk of being deported back to their country at a time of political turbulence there.
Suazo was jailed in Nicaragua in 2018 after participating in and organizing anti-government protests. He was released nine months later but was arrested again in 2022 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for undermining national integrity and spreading misinformation.
He told ABC News he was subjected to physical and psychological torture in detention.
In recent weeks, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, at least 272 organizations and Suazo have urged the administration to protect Nicaraguans through TPS.
“I’m going to continue to raise my voice for the Nicaraguan community that has had to leave home because of oppression and persecution,” Suazo said. “I’ve lived through that pain, and that’s why I’m calling on the Biden administration to approve TPS for Nicaraguans who have no guarantee of returning to our county safely.”
TPS is issued by the secretary of Homeland Security when countries are deemed too unsafe for their citizens to return — like in Afghanistan, after the Taliban took control of the national government there in 2021.
The protections, which prevent deportation but don’t lead to citizenship, were first granted to Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in 1998. In 2017, the Trump administration moved to end TPS for Nicaragua and several other countries, saying it wasn’t necessary any longer because those countries were recovering.
That prompted a series of legal challenges on behalf of current TPS holders and the designation for Nicaragua, Sudan, Haiti, and El Salvador has been extended while a preliminary injunction in the case remains in place pending further judicial review.
Only those Nicaraguan immigrants who physically resided in the U.S. before Jan. 5, 1999, are shielded under the program from the threat of deportation. There were 4,250 Nicaraguan TPS beneficiaries in the U.S. as of 2021, according to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services congressional report.
Suazo and others who support extending the protections are calling on the Biden administration to redesignate the program with a later eligibility cutoff date, which they say would extend it to thousands of more Nicaraguans.
In a February letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, 16 Republican and Democratic lawmakers from multiple states noted that more than 500 Nicaraguans have been killed in Nicaragua since 2018 and tens of thousands have fled the country, which the lawmakers linked to the opposition to Ortega and resulting crackdown.
The lawmakers warned that failure to protect Nicaraguans through TPS would mean some would have to leave the U.S. for life under “President Ortega’s authoritarian regime,” which they called an “unconscionable reality.”
Both the White House and Department of Homeland Security declined to comment when asked if they’re considering redesignating TPS for Nicaragua.
Biden’s immigration policies have been a point of contention, among Republicans and some advocates, as the administration has sought to mitigate a record number of migrants arriving in the country at the southern border.
While the White House says it wants to roll back the hardline stances of predecessor Donald Trump, conservatives have assailed some of its policies as “reckless” and immigration supporters have criticized other decisions, such as restrictions to asylum claims.
In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered migrants over 2.7 million times. At the southern border, CBP had 163,876 encounters with Nicaraguan migrants, more than triple the year before.
The Biden administration recently announced a new parole program to accept up to 30,000 total asylum-seekers each month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, the program was coupled with an agreement from Mexico to accept migrants who are expelled by the U.S. when they fail to meet the strict parole requirements, such as having a sponsor in the U.S. who can be financially responsible for them.
Some Republican-led states are challenging the parole program, saying it incentivizes more migrants to come to the U.S.
Ahilan Arulanantham, an attorney representing TPS holders under the preliminary injunction, said that if the Biden administration thinks immigrants fleeing a specific country warrant parole, they should also warrant protection through TPS.
“The administration obviously recognizes that Nicaragua is not safe for, at least, many people,” Arulanantham said.
Advocates argue that with ex-President Trump running for reelection, Biden is running out of time to act on an issue that has for decades stymied Congress.
“In the absence of congressional action, this is one of the most valuable tools that they can use at this moment to offer protections to people who really call America their home at this point and can’t return to some to these countries which are in deteriorating conditions,” said Beatriz Lopez, chief political and communications officer at Immigration Hub.
Now in the U.S., Suazo has humanitarian parole for about two years but may be at risk of removal if the administration does not redesignate TPS for Nicaragua.
The fear of not being able to safely return to his homeland to see his elderly parents is what worries him the most, he said.
“I pray each day that I’ll return one day and find them alive waiting to give me a hug,” he said. “All of us who have left our country due to a cowardly dictatorship share that feeling.”
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