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Nicaraguans in South Florida struggle to take in a wave of migrants, political prisoners

Nicaraguan political prisoners released on Feb. 9 and flown to the U.S. hold Nicaraguan flags during a press conference at Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava's office last month.
Lynne Sladky
Nicaraguan political prisoners released on Feb. 9 and flown to the U.S. hold Nicaraguan flags during a press conference at Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava's office last month.

The thing Ena Huete recalls most about growing up in the rural Nicaraguan state of Chontales is how devoted her parents were to helping people in need.

"My mother once reached out to an outcast homeless who no one would touch, and took her into our house and gave her food, a bath, clean clothes," Huete tells me before stopping to wipe away tears.

"I'm sorry... I never forgot that."

Today Huete lives in Kendall, where she’s a health records analyst. But she’s also the Miami coordinator for the Nicaraguan exile nonprofit Nicaragüenes Libres, or Free Nicaraguans — and these days she seems to be working overtime keeping her mother’s Good Samaritan spirit alive.

"It's... it's too much — I need a day with 30 hours," she says, her tears turning to laughter.

Nicaraguan community leader Ena Huete with a photo of her late mother, Maria Manuela Almanza de Hurtado, at her apartment in Kendall
Tim Padgett
Nicaraguan community leader Ena Huete with a photo of her late mother, Maria Manuela Almanza de Hurtado, at her apartment in Kendall

Maybe 40. For starters, Huete right now is helping six relatives back in Nicaragua who want to flee Daniel Ortega’s brutal dictatorship. They can come to the U.S. under President Biden’s new humanitarian parole program for migrants from the crisis-torn countries Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua. They can stay for two years and work — if someone like Huete, or an organization like a business or church or nonprofit, can sponsor them.

"Then there's the freed prisoners who arrived here Feb. 9," she points out — referring to the 222 political prisoners Ortega released last month and sent to the U.S.

Huete is also helping another Nicaraguan NGO, the Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), assist those refugees in getting settled here with housing, jobs, health and English classes. One, in fact, is now living in her Kendall apartment — and Huete is helping that woman's family come here, too.

“We have a big project, but we need help" from the broader South Florida community, Huete says.

"We don’t have enough sponsors here for so many people that would like to come. Now we have to demonstrate that we are good citizens and step forward to receive them."

READ MORE: Nicaragua must 'break its violent cycle of becoming what we fight against'

Few South Florida exile groups are feeling as strained right now as Nicaraguans. As a burgeoning number of migrants and political prisoners are escaping Nicaragua’s dictatorship, the diaspora here is struggling to handle the wave.

At a press conference organized last month by the CPDH, with many of the released political prisoners standing with her, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava also urged organizations in the community — including those offering psychological services to attend to prisoners who were subjected to torture — to aid recently arrived Nicaraguans.

Nicaragua is the western hemisphere's second poorest country, and that's one reason the diaspora is not as well equipped as others, like Cuban exiles, to sponsor and receive the refugee rush. But not the only.

"It's rare for a Cuban national to come in and not have any friends or family members in the U.S.," says Maureen Porras, a Nicaraguan-American immigration attorney and a Doral city councilwoman.

"But we see that very frequently with Nicaraguans."

It's rare for a Cuban national to come here and not have any friends or family members. But we see that very frequently with Nicaraguans.
Maureen Porras

Here's why: while migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti have been coming to South Florida continuously for decades, the last real wave of Nicaraguans arrived way back in the 1980s.

“That gap has really made it challenging for the ones that are coming in now," Porras points out.

"Unfortunately the Nicaraguan community is not as organized as other Latino communities. The existing infrastructure is just not there.”

'Animal' treatment

Nicaraguans coming in now began arriving five years ago — when Ortega launched a fierce crackdown on nationwide anti-government protests. His security forces killed hundreds of people and jailed hundreds more. Among the political prisoners released last month and now living in Miami was a dissident who was held for years in solitary confinement.

“It was criminal, inhumane — animal treatment,” the man told me over coffee at a restaurant near the Nicaraguan enclave of Sweetwater in west Miami-Dade County.

WLRN is not naming the man to protect his wife and children back in Nicaragua. He requested that because Ortega made sure that as soon as he and the other 221 political prisoners had left the country on Feb. 9, they lost their Nicaraguan citizenship — rendering them stateless individuals whose only way of seeing their families again is to bring them here.

The man, naturally, wants his family to come here now on the migrant parole program. But there’s one big problem.

“In order to keep harassing me," he says, "the Ortega regime has stripped my children of their passports."

That’s a common regime tactic — part of the persecution of political prisoners' families and associates, who usually have police cars sitting outside their homes each day conducting surveillance. And it's an especially cruel one now, because without their Nicaraguan passports they can’t apply for the U.S. migrant parole.

Alfredo Zuniga
Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega (right) and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo

As a result, diaspora leaders are urging the Biden Administration to drop the passport requirement for Nicaraguan migrants. WLRN has learned that no such waiver is in the works.

Those leaders also know organizations like churches and immigration nonprofits are themselves stretched thin by the number of migrants coming into South Florida from around the Americas. So they want Congress and/or the Administration to grant Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to the Nicaraguan asylum-seekers who’ve arrived here since 2018. With that legal status, they say, asylum-seekers could then pitch in and help sponsor Nicaraguan migrants for the parole.

"We believe that an expansion of TPS will alleviate some of the strain," says Nicaraguan community leader Jonathan Duarte, a human resources manager in Miami, who is sponsoring the family of another recently-arrived Nicaraguan political prisoner for the migrant parole.

"The need is overwhelming."

How overwhelming? Since the Biden Administration announced the humanitarian parole policy in January, Duarte says he alone has received more than a hundred requests to sponsor Nicaraguan migrants.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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