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How ‘Daniel Ortega’ became the secret password to get into the U.S

In FY 2021, more than 50,000 Nicaraguans were detained at the U.S. southern border, up 1,500% from the year before

MIAMI — Tuesdays are particularly difficult for Nicaraguan asylum-seeker Erasmo “Cata” Aragón. That’s when his veterinary class visits the student-training farm in Rivas, where he learned to care for sheep, goats, dogs, horses, and cattle. It was Aragón’s favorite day of the week. Now it’s a source of acute nostalgia as he scrolls through his classmates’ Instagram posts and reflects on the life he left behind. 

“I loved being in the mud, in the manure, with the rich smell of the animals and the corrals,” Aragón says wistfully. “I loved my studies in a way you can’t even imagine. Ever since I was a little boy on my father’s farm, I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. On Tuesdays, I think about what I’d be doing if I were still in Nicaragua — working on the farm with my classmates, covered in mud and manure.”

As much as Aragón loved spending time on the animal farm, he hated seeing his country become one under the Orwellian dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. So as an extracurricular, Aragón joined the Azul y Blanco anti-government protest. He was promptly arrested for waving a Nicaraguan flag on a street corner in his hometown of Nandaime.

Aragón spent the next week locked up in a crowded jail cell, where he was subjected to repeated and deranged police interrogations about foreign funding, weapons, and kill totals. He was eventually released with a stern warning to never speak ill of the Ortega regime again. Aragón says he tried to “lower the heat” and return to a quieter life among the more reasonable animals on the farm, but the Sandinista pigs wouldn’t let up.

“Police patrols would be outside our house at all hours, blaring their sirens and flashing their lights, or blasting pro-government songs,” Aragón remembers. “My parents sell milk out of our house, and the police would sit outside and photograph everyone who came by.” 

Facing incessant harassment and no foreseeable prospects for change as Ortega renewed his lease on Nicaragua for another five years, Aragón and his older brother decided to take their chances emigrating to the United States. They sold what they could, borrowed some cash, and scraped together enough family savings to pay a coyote to smuggle them north. 

In doing so, the Aragón brothers joined an increasing exodus of Nicaraguans who are beating a path out of every exit. Last year alone, some 170,000 Nicaraguans were forced to migrate, mostly to Costa Rica. But the northbound flow to the United States has increased at an alarming rate. In FY 2021, 50,722 Nicaraguans were detained at the U.S. southern border, up 1,500% from 3,164 from the year before (a number likely depressed by pandemic border closures). In the first three months of FY 2022, the number of Nicaraguans detained at the U.S. border is already at 38,318, according to U.S. Homeland Security. 

Most Nicaraguans arriving at the U.S. border are getting in and being put into asylum proceedings, which the U.S. categorizes as “deportation proceedings.” During the first three months of the current fiscal year, 24,041 Nicaraguans started the asylum process in the United States, already surpassing last year’s total, according to Trac

Nicaragua is now on pace to shatter all of last year’s record-setting migration numbers — and there’s no sign that the trend will slow in the months ahead.

“The number of Nicaraguans coming here has grown significantly in the past year, and this church has practically become a place of pilgrimage for them,” Nicaraguan Bishop Silvio José Báez, himself an exile, told The Dispatch after saying mass to an overflow crowd at Miami’s St. Agatha Church. “Most of the Nicaraguans coming here are young; they’re fleeing their country because they feel persecuted, threatened. Here at the church, we’re working to find the best way to help them, especially all the young people who are arriving.”

Báez says he wrestles with the question of what to tell other Nicaraguans who are packing their bags and planning to leave. 

“It’s very difficult to know what to tell them,” the bishop said. “In my heart, I wish I could tell them to stay in Nicaragua and not to take the risk of coming here. It’s an extremely dangerous journey and they’re putting their lives at risk. But I also know that many people can’t continue to live in Nicaragua, and that breaks my heart.” 

The viral Twitter thread

That heart-breaking journey to the United States was recently chronicled by mud-and-manure enthusiast Aragón, who immortalized his odyssey in a viral Twitter thread that quickly turned this young veterinarian student into an overnight posterboy for Nica asylum-seekers. 

Even rolled out to its full length at 44 tweets, there are no wasted words in Aragón’s chronology. It’s a compellingly fast read that mixes raw emotion, adventure, humor, danger, and vulnerability in a way that proves the aphorism “Every Nicaraguan is a poet until proven otherwise.”

Aragón’s subsequent detention in the U.S. private prison system was detailed in a second Twitter thread that further illuminated the mistreatment and hardships faced by migrants after arriving in the “land of the free.”

Aragón’s story on social media seems to have awakened a new conversation on Nicaraguan Twitter, where some people are starting to talk about their immigration experience in a new, open way.

Some are sharing their own migration photos:

While others are sharing warnings:

Some are sharing anecdotes about networking with the newly arrived:

Even the U.S. Embassy in Managua got involved in the Twitter conversation by recycling a tone-deaf message repurposed from the embassy in Tegucigalpa:

Still, the thread shared by Aragón is a rarity. Smugglers routinely discourage migrants from documenting their journeys. “The coyotes specifically told us ‘No photos, no videos.’ They told us to delete everything off our phones that could get us in trouble with the cartels in Mexico,” says recently arrived asylum-seeker Franders Guevara

Guevara, however, decided to document his trip anyway by surreptitiously sending photos and videos back to his family in Nicaragua before deleting them from his phone — saving everything on the “Nica Cloud,” as it were. He says there’s no shame or fear in talking about the journey, and it’s all everyone back in Nicaragua asks him about. “It’s an achievement, a source of pride that you made it across the border.”

Aragón agrees. He says it has been affirming to share his experience publicly — a form of self-medication against the loneliness of exile. 

“It’s liberating to share everything I lived, everything I suffered. It’s a relief to share this,” Aragón said. “There’s no stigma around this issue anymore because practically every home in Nicaragua is missing a brother or a sister, a cousin, an aunt or an uncle who had to leave the country and emigrate. The immigration story involves everyone.”

Everyone — it turns out — including the Sandinistas.

Unos a la bulla y otros a la cabuya

Several Nicaraguan asylum-seekers in the United States say they’ve been shocked in recent months by the number of Sandinista sapos crossing the border to join the growing community of exiles.

Nicaraguan asylee Carolina, who asked to withhold her last name for fear of reprisal against her family back home, said several of her violent Sandinista neighbors who participated in the government mob that attacked Catholic priests (including Monseñor Báez) inside the St. Sebastian Basilica in Diriamba on July 9, 2018, are now living in the United States pretending to be victims of state repression. “They’re here in the U.S. asking for asylum, using the same excuse about Daniel Ortega. That’s the password to get into the country.”

The password seems to be working. According to U.S. government data, only 2% of Nicaraguans who arrived on the U.S. border in December were expelled from the country. That’s an extremely low bounce rate for Central America. Crunching the December data sheet reveals the following bounce rates: Salvadorans: 59%; Guatemalans: 66%; Hondurans: 64%; — and just for good measure— Mexicans: 87%. 

Apparently, the Sandinistas have done the same math and are taking advantage of the swinging door.

Nicaraguan asylum-seeker Guevara, from the northern department of Madriz, says there weren’t any Sandinistas in his mini-caravan of 35 Nicaraguans who recently made the trek north, but says FSLN militants from his area are making their own travel arrangements to the U.S.

“I know a guy from San Juan de Rio Coco, near where I lived back home, and this guy is Sandinista to the death,” Guevara said. “He and his uncle recently got into the United States, and these were guys who were attacking protesters with everything they had. They’re here for economic reasons, looking for work because they know that the 200 pesos that the government gives them to repress people isn’t enough to live on. They’re here pretending to be asylum-seekers.”

Aragón, for his part, says he almost came to blows with a Sandinista who was shouting pro-Ortega slogans at the other Nicaraguan asylum-seekers when they were locked up together in a migrant detention center in Georgia.  “Who knows what that guy said in his credible fear interview,” Aragón says; “but whatever he said was a lie because he got into the country.” 

The Dispatch asked ICE and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for comment on the situation. ICE punted to USCIS, which didn’t respond by press time.

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