Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans seeking U.S. asylum face long immigration backlog

Carlos Marcano says members of Venezuela’s intelligence agency kidnapped and beat him last year after he organized and marched in a political protest.

“I thought they would kill me,” Marcano, 42, told NBC News.

He tried to report his persecution, but the situation only got more dire when his attackers found out. So he fled Venezuela and traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he waited in line to apply for asylum in the United States.

Marcano is part of a larger swell of Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Cubans who are relying on the U.S. immigration court system as a lifeline. Between September 2018 and December 2019, they became the fastest growing nationalities caught up in the courts’ million-case backlog, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. The number of Cubans with pending cases more than quadrupled, and cases involving Venezuelans and Nicaraguans also surged.

Close to 4.8 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees have left their country, according to the coordination platform Response for Venezuelans. Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House in London, described Venezuela as a failed state with an economy in free fall and a lack of jobs, medicine or food.

“It is a full-out humanitarian crisis, the likes of which the world has never seen without an all-out war,” he said.

In Cuba, residents are dealing with an economic slowdown and ongoing issues with political repression amid the increasingly hard-line U.S. policies under the Trump administration. In fiscal year 2019, Cubans submitted more than 18,000 credible fear claims, a first step toward asylum in the U.S.

For asylum-seekers from these three countries, “the push factors aren’t going away,” said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “So there’s a question of whether or not they will outweigh the deterrent measures that the U.S. government has put into effect.”

The U.S. embassies in Caracas and Havana have suspended all or almost all visa processing in both countries, and Bolter believes Cubans and Venezuelans’ virtual inability to obtain proper U.S. travel documentation at home has funneled even more traffic to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Asylum-seekers who make it to Mexico are then confronted by hard-line U.S. immigration policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols and “metering,” both of which strand people in dangerous border cities for a time before they can request asylum stateside.

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