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By Jake Kincaid
(Reuters) - The United States began deporting a record number of Nicaraguan migrants this year data reviewed by 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 he is defending Nicaragua from adversaries plotting with foreign powers to oust him.
Ortiz said he fled Nicaragua in 2019 to seek U.S. asylum after university friends he had helped to organize anti-Ortega protests were arrested and thrown into a jail that critics say is used to torture political prisoners.
But rather than receiving a sympathetic ear to his plight, Ortiz said he was expelled after a brief appearance before a New York judge.
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 it foreign policy on Nicaragua, which President Joe Biden this month accused of "repressive and abusive acts." His administration banned members of the Nicaraguan government from entering the United States, in response to an election it says was rigged in favor of Ortega.
Nicaraguan asylum seekers face different threats to those from other Central American countries, where rampant crime and poverty, rather than party politics, mostly forces migrants to head to the United States, Orozco said.
Under U.S. law, asylum seekers cannot secure U.S. residency because they are fleeing gang violence. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-immigration-asylum They must convince authorities they have credible fear of persecution on grounds 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 exploded from 4,145 in 2018, when mass protests engulfed the country, 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.
Most cases end in deportation. Over 60% of deportation proceedings for Nicaraguans led to removal from the United States in 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 remain unresolved, TRACS data show.
After five months waiting in detention centers for his hearing, Ortiz said he 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 Nicaraguan authorities could not use them against him.
Reuters could not independently verify Ortiz's account.
When he landed in Nicaragua he was taken to an interrogation room, where police told him he would be charged with terrorism and that he should await an appointment with police at his parents' home, he said.
Instead, 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 now waiting for his next hearing in California.
Nicaragua's government did not reply to requests for comment about the case.
Authorities caught over 50,000 Nicaraguans trying 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 migrants in U.S. immigration courts. For decades, annual deportation filings were below 5,000. But in the fiscal year 2021, it had the sixth-highest number, just behind Mexico, according to TRACS data.
"Not all of the (U.S.) judges know what's going on in the country, the country conditions, and they may confuse Nicaragua with the Northern Triangle countries," said Astrid Montealegre, lawyer and President of the Nicaraguan American Human Rights Alliance, referring to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"They are just automatically doing deportation."
An official at the U.S. Executive Office for Immigration Review at the U.S. Justice Department said immigration judges adjudicate asylum claims case-by-case and consider all evidence submitted by both parties.
(Reporting by Jake Kincaid in Mexico City; Additing reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Dave Graham, Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell)