EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A group of Nicaraguan asylum-seekers appeared before a U.S. immigration judge on Thursday, as the federal government resumed Migrant Protection Protocols program hearings in El Paso.

Several dozen foreign nationals detained in the United States, given notices to appear (NTA) in U.S. immigration and placed in the “Remain in Mexico” program by the Biden administration have been allowed to come over from Juarez this week to plead their case. Many, like Oscar Eduardo Gonzalez Nuñez, were detained in South Texas late last year.

“I have never tried to enter the United States illegally before,” Gonzalez told U.S. Immigration Judge Judith F. Bonilla. “But because of the situation in my country, the dictatorship, I was forced to travel to this country.”

Asylum-seekers must prove persecution based on race, gender, political opinion, or for being part of a designated group or class.

Gonzalez told the judge he has legitimate grounds for asylum. “I have evidence to prove the dangers I face in my country, of how the Sandinista government is persecuting me for my political opinion,” he said, adding that he’s got letters from American citizens, including a retired U.S. Air Force serviceman, in support of his claim.

The Interamerican Commission on Human Rights has documented thousands of human rights violations in Nicaragua since 2018 stemming from protests against the Daniel Ortega regime. International aid organizations report that at least 100,000 Nicaraguans have left the country since then.

Thursday’s hearings were preceded by a “Know your rights” group presentation, which local immigration advocates in 2019 complained the Trump administration had curtailed. The hearings were suspended in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in 2021 when President Biden rolled back the program. However, a federal judge ordered Biden to restart MPP and the administration complied as of last month.

A Spanish interpreter was present in the El Paso court on Thursday and, though only one of the four asylum-seekers in the group had legal representation, Bonilla asked all of them if they needed time to find counsel. She asked if they were given a list of pro bono and low-cost legal providers. She even dialed a law firm from the bench to inquire why the migrant’s lawyer of record wasn’t present.

Most of the migrants told the judge they were ready to proceed without a lawyer and were told to return for a second hearing in three months. That’s an improvement over reported waits of six months to a year between hearings in 2019. The judge urged the migrants to complete asylum applications and bring evidence of persecution to their next hearing.

She also asked them if they were afraid of being returned to Mexico. All of them said yes.

Migrant advocates have stated repeatedly that citizens of the Caribbean, Central and South America become targets of border gangs once they’re expelled to Mexico.

All the Nicaraguans appearing Thursday in Bonilla’s court stated they’re living at Juarez’s Casa del Migrante shelter. The judge nonetheless referred them to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officer who will determine if their fear of persecution and torture is legitimate or if they should continue in the MPP program and go back to Juarez.

Once taken out of MPP, the asylum-seekers might be able to continue immigration procedures while staying in the United States.

Public access to El Paso immigration court remains severely limited due to COVID-19 protocols.

Border Report staff graphic

On Thursday morning, court administrators restricted occupancy to 10 people including the judge, her assistant, an interpreter, the Department of Homeland Security counsel and a security officer. The first group of four migrants sat in benches far apart from each other. This reporter was the only member of the news media allowed in.