Carlos Marcano, a 42-year-old Venezuelan lawyer and opponent of strongman President Nicolas Maduro, was cuffed hand and foot. Guards frog-marched him to a bus filled with prisoners. He didn’t know where he was being taken.
It was Phoenix.
A journey that began a year ago, when Maduro’s secret police snatched Marcano off the street, became a four-month odyssey through America’s immigration system after he asked for asylum. President Donald Trump’s actions to seal the border from Central Americans have ground the system to a near standstill, testing the endurance and dignity of even the strongest candidates. Marcano was shuttled through four U.S. prisons. He battled weight loss and depression, and finally was paroled only to wait two years or more for a hearing. Marcano never expected such treatment when he presented himself to officials in San Diego in April.
“It hit me very hard in my soul,” Marcano said.
The lawyer fled a regime the U.S. has tried vigorously to depose. Yet his petition was lumped with thousands of cases flooding immigration officials. The number of new asylum filings has jumped two-and-a-half-fold since fiscal 2016, to about 212,000 last year.
“What you’re seeing right now is a system that absolutely is under extreme stress and duress. And systems under extreme stress and duress aren’t necessarily known for their due process and fairness,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There are legitimate cases that are being shuffled through the system or denied.”
The Supreme Court on Sept. 11 allowed the administration to sharply limit who can apply at the U.S.-Mexico border. While a legal challenge proceeds, Central Americans who cross through Mexico can’t claim refugee status at the U.S. border unless they’ve asked for protection from a country they passed through. Meanwhile, Trump has said he wants to hold those who do request asylum as long as possible.
Marcano, who declined to be photographed, is from Puerto La Cruz, a city about 200 miles east of Caracas that in better times was a departure point for the nation’s lifeblood oil. There, he earned a living defending injured workers. He also dabbled in politics, rising to become chief of the left-leaning Causa R party in his home state. He sent his family to Ecuador to escape danger.
After a Feb. 12 rally for opposition leader Juan Guaido, Marcano met friends in a cafe to drink coffee. He was leaving when three men shoved him into a white Toyota SUV, striking him in the head with a pistol butt, he said. His captors peppered him with questions about politics, and he was roughed up if answers didn’t come quickly. Marcano said it was clear that they were Venezuela’s secret police, the Sebin.
As suddenly as Marcano was grabbed off Paseo Colon, he was set free in a remote area with a warning to keep his mouth shut. As fear subsided, anger welled. Wanting a record of the abuse, he reported the incident to Puerto La Cruz police. The next day an anonymous caller told Marcano that was a grave mistake. He packed a suitcase and headed for the Colombian border.
“I left everything behind—my house, my car, everything,” Marcano said.
His plan was to join his brothers, who live in Dallas. He hopscotched by land and plane to Tijuana, where he joined thousands waiting to present themselves to U.S. officials.
But Marcano wasn’t aware of how the administration had begun treating asylum-seekers. Trump pushed immigration officials to detain them even if accompanied by children. After a nationwide injunction that said families must be released after 20 days, Trump struck a deal with Mexico to keep people south of the border even after beginning the process. Only then did cases dwindle, said David Martin, a University of Virginia professor emeritus with expertise in immigration and refugee law.
“Before they implemented the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy and some other things, the monthly numbers really got high,” said Martin. “It was a legitimate crisis to deal with.”
After Marcano spent two and a half months in Tijuana, a group organizing the waiting list said he was next.
“One thinks that this is the end of the race,” Marcano said. “To my big surprise, when it was my turn, I presented myself to U.S. immigration, I handed over my passport and after they took my information, fingerprints and all that, without asking me anything, they put me in a cell that everybody calls ‘la hielera’ ”—the cooler.
He lingered for seven days in a smelly concrete cell so crowded that people took turns sleeping on the floor with a single Mylar blanket. Lights glared constantly off the white, windowless walls.
Marcano would understand later that the hielera was just a holding area and that his asylum process hadn’t yet begun. People were spending a month or more inside—inmates could shower and brush their teeth only every two days. In just a week, Marcano lost weight and felt weak. The food was making him ill.
He was relieved when officers informed him he was leaving, though they declined to tell him where he was going. Guards shackled him for a bus trip to the airport, a plane ride and another bus to a detention center in San Luis, Arizona. There, Marcano had his photo and fingerprints taken, marking the initial step in the process. At least this facility had more space, better food and a bed.
It wouldn’t last. After 15 days, Marcano was cuffed again and moved to Tallahatchie, Mississippi, where CoreCivic Inc. operates a federal prison. His green uniform marked him as one of the asylum-seekers, who were held apart from other inmates. Murderers wore red, sexual predators white and drug offenders orange.
In Mississippi, Marcano spoke with an agent from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and passed what’s called a credible-fear screening, as most do. Now Marcano was eligible for a parole that would let him live in the U.S. and apply for a work permit while awaiting a hearing.
But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had begun to systematically deny parole. The New Orleans Field Office, which encompasses Tallahatchie, granted it in only 1.5% of cases in 2018, a rate that plummeted from 75% in 2016, according to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Marcano’s petition was denied. He spent 40 days at Tallahatchie.
“Part of the hardship, and you can even say cruelty, has to do with making people want to quit and ask to be deported,” Marcano said.
He wouldn’t quit, even after he was chained for a third move. This time he wound up in the Stewart Detention Center in tiny Lumpkin, Georgia. It was a bad break. Marcano’s case was assigned there to Judge Dan Trimble, who from 2014 to 2019 rejected 451 out of the 481 asylum petitions he handled. That denial rate of 94% was much higher than the national average of 63%, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Each petition is “unique, with its own set of facts,” said Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the judges. The office “takes seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making and takes steps to evaluate disparities.”
At Stewart, Marcano said, there was limited access to the internet, ICE officials or lawyers. He found legal assistance from the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative and even began helping others as his jurist’s instincts kicked in.
Through his pro bono lawyer, Marcano got word of his detention to members of Guaido’s movement in the U.S. Guaido’s representatives persuaded ICE to grant parole. His brother bought him a plane ticket for the next day, and Marcano was reunited with his family in Dallas.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “I felt like I came back to life.”
A venue change to the Dallas immigration court has improved Marcano’s ability to win, by a little. He was assigned to a judge who has a denial rate over the past five years of 87%.
Marcano feels fortunate when he thinks of other asylum-seekers still languishing behind bars. He also knows that if he had escaped Venezuela later, he might be stuck in Mexico—apart from his family and confronting the dangers of living as a refugee.
“We’re safe,” he said. “This is a safe country.”
To contact the author of this story: Thomas Black in Dallas at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at email@example.com, Flynn McRoberts
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