Indigenous Miskitu Migration: The Case for Asylum, by Laura Hobson Herlihy 

A KU CLACS Summer 2022 Faculty Travel Award provided me with the opportunity to study Central American Indigenous migration to the US. I focused on the Nicaraguan Miskitu people migrating to the U.S. and originally planned to complete research in the coastal capital of Puerto Cabezas (Bilwi), Nicaragua. My plan changed when I was blocked by Immigration border guards from entering the country. Due to the political crisis in Nicaragua, academics like myself are often included on the No Entry List.   


I detoured to the Honduran Caribbean coast, as the Miskitu people live in a binational (Honduras and Nicaragua) homeland, called Muskitia, La Mosquitia, or the Miskito Coast. I decided to complete fieldwork in Puerto Lempira, (Honduras) located about four hours by pick-up truck from the Coco River (Wangki Awala) international border with Nicaragua. In Puerto Lempira, I interviewed family members of Nicaraguan Miskitu migrants; and through social media sites, I maintained communication with migrants on the move, and with members of the Indigenous Yatama (Yapti Tasba Masrika Nanih Asla Takanka-Children of Mother Earth) organization in Nicaragua.  


At the time of my June-July summer research, Yatama Youth leader Yuri Lampson reported that an estimated 3,000 Miskitu young men and women had left Nicaragua for the southwestern U.S. border. This first wave of Miskitu migrants began departing in late April of 2022, just after Covid restrictions were cleared for travel across Central America. This marks the first time since the Nicaraguan civil war, that Miskitu migration to the U.S. has significantly escalated. The record high number of Miskitu migrants today, much higher than in the 1980’s, is part of a broader surge in Western Hemispheric migration. 


Push Factors 


The main push factors for all Nicaraguan migrants--including the Miskitu--are political persecution and poverty. Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) President, Daniel Ortega, came back to power in 2006 and has never left office. Ortega has become increasingly authoritarian, having taken over all branches of the government, the Supreme Electoral Council, and the Army and Police. Nicaraguan citizens attempted to oust Ortega in a series of protests and “tranques” (“road-blocks”), which initially began in April 2018, as a reaction to changes in the Social Security system. Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosarillo Murillo, then headed a brutal crackdown that resulted in over 300 deaths and forcibly displaced 100,000 citizens, who mainly fled to Costa Rica seeking asylum. 


Repression ramped up prior to the November 2021 general elections. The Ortega-Murillos arrested and jailed opposition presidential candidates and cancelled opposition parties; they also closed-down universities, independent media outlets, religious organizations, and other NGOs. Daniel Ortega, as expected, “won” his fifth overall and fourth consecutive presidential election on November 7th, cementing his family dictatorship and further demoralizing the nation. All government employees on the Caribbean coast, even police and teachers, were told they would lose their jobs if they could not provide evidence of their vote on election day: they took selfies showing their inked thumb in voting stations. Fear was running rampant. Even within the Sandinista party, neighbors were telling on neighbors for criticizing the government. Members of Yatama felt particularly terrorized. Yatama was the only opposition party to the Sandinistas on the Caribbean coast. Many leaders reportedly were being followed. Brooklyn Rivera, the 1987 founder long-term director of Yatama, documented his every move on his Blackberry, fearing he would be arrested and jailed like other leaders of Campesino movements. 


Poverty is not a new problem for Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the hemisphere. After the 2018 protests, however, Nicaragua’s economy took a deeper nosedive. The U.S. had imposed economic sanctions in response to the FSLN government’s crumbling democratic values and human rights abuses. Economic persecution intensified—only those allied with the FSLN were given jobs and could earn a living. This was particularly noticeable on the Caribbean coast, the poorest region in Nicaragua. Then, to add insult to economic injury, the coronavirus pandemic hit in February 2020, further deteriorating employment opportunities. 


Violence was another major push factor on the Caribbean coast. Interviewees spoke about land conflicts with armed mestizo colonists that escalated in 2014 and continues today. Over 120 Indigenous land defenders had been injured, kidnapped, and killed. The state government has done nothing to protect the Indigenous Miskitu and Mayangna peoples or their lands. In the upper-Wangki (Coco River) regions, residents could no longer get to their fields safely for horticultural subsistence activities. Food insecurity escalated and malnutrition was on the rise. 


Indigenous interviewees also mentioned climate change as a migration push factor. Two Category 4 hurricanes (Eta and Iota) damaged coastal communities in November 2020 and wiped the historic community of Haulover off the map. Allegedly, hurricane relief was only available to sympathizers of the FSLN. These often conflated political, economic, land-based violence, and climatic factors made it difficult for Miskitu families along the Caribbean coast to earn a living, and many feared for their lives. 


The Migrant Trail and Immigration Policies 


The main route from Managua to the Mexico-US border by bus took a month or more. After crossing the southern Mexican border, most Miskitu migrants stayed for at least two weeks in Tapachula (Chiapas) to work and earn money, while they applied and then waited for their humanitarian visa. Migrants’ passports were commonly stolen along the way and the humanitarian visa became their only form of identification, one which would allow them to travel through Mexico to the southwestern border of the U.S. 


At Texas border-crossings and Port of Entries, like Matamoros-Brownsville and Juarez-El Paso (Paso del Norte), US Customs and Border Protection held Miskitu migrants petitioning for asylum for a maximum of three days in processing centers, to vet them and take credible fear interviews, before releasing them in the U.S. to sponsors. Family members assume economic responsibility for the migrants and send them money for airplane or bus tickets. The migrants then wait at their given address to receive official papers announcing their Notice to Appear and the date of their first court case (called a Master Calendar or preliminary hearing), often scheduled more than a year after entry. 


Other Nicaraguan Miskitu migrants seeking asylum were sent back to Mexico to wait to be processed. Although Trump’s remain in Mexico policy had ended and Title 42 public health legislation did not apply to Nicaraguan migrants at the time, a metering system was employed that limited or ‘capped’ the number of Nicaraguans that could be processed by certain calendar dates. Miskitu migrants waited for weeks and sometimes months on end to be summoned for processing, renting rooms together while working day jobs in Mexico. 


More unfortunate Miskitu migrants were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at private and government detention centers. Many of the detained were monolingual Miskitu speakers who do not speak Spanish and find it difficult to access legal and medical assistance. ICE detention facilities house U.S. Immigration Court rooms where judges decide their asylum cases. Miskitu migrants often are traumatized by their long stays in detention centers, where they claim to be treated like criminals. 


Miskitu migrants often face difficulties because they speak an Indigenous language, from their first encounters with CBP to their court hearings. Many do not speak Spanish well and in the U.S. legal system, all court documents must be submitted in English. They often rely on bi-lingual friends or family members at a distance for help. Migrants do, however, have the human right to trial in their native language. Translators are needed for each hearing, but Miskitu translators are difficult to find. I work as one of the few immigration translators for Miskito language. 


In preliminary hearings, Miskitu migrants submit I589 forms to petition for asylum and other forms of relief, such as Convention Against Torture (CAT) and Withholding of Removal. Multiple preliminary hearings may occur, as petitioners often need more time to find help filling out forms in English. They are then given the date of their final evidentiary (Merit based) hearing, which are also commonly delayed. The judge may give the respondent more time to seek representation, to receive evidence, or to translate evidentiary documents to English.  


If denied asylum and other forms of relief, the petitioner can appeal the decision to a higher court or agree to be sent back to their home country or another country of their choice, depending on the discretion of the judge. The Miskitu being returned to Nicaragua claim they would be met with increased government repression, after having petitioned for asylum. Big brother was watching and Miskitu asylum seekers were commonly outed on Caribbean Sandinista social media sites. 


The Biden administration in early January of 2023, introduced new regulations that would expand Title 42 to expel Nicaraguan migrants to Mexico, while allowing others to apply for asylum through a web application (CBP One™ Mobile Application) before they leave home. These new asylum petitioners will need passports, plane tickets to the U.S., and sponsors, but will qualify for a parole system in which they can enter the U.S. with work permits while waiting for their asylum hearings. Biden’s new regulations will continue changing the border landscape. 


Modern Miskitu History: The Case for Asylum-Seekers 


All Nicaraguans not allied with the government suffer at the hands of the FSLN, but the Miskitu people arguably suffer more intensely. In the 1980s, they fought as counterrevolutionaries (or Contras) against the Sandinistas in the failed U.S.-backed Contra War; the Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples on the Caribbean coast, made up about 1/4 of the country’s Contra forces. Many academics describe the Caribbean Contra War as an ethnic conflict, mirroring the historic conflicts between the colonizing Spanish and native peoples defending their autochthonous lands. 


Indigenous people have no special status when processed at the U.S. border; they are identified by nationality alone. However, on I589 forms, they must claim repression based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. For a Miskitu asylum petitioner to be successful in court, they must fully explain their Indigenous or ethnic identity and provide evidence of persecution based on that identity. Most Miskitu asylum petitioners represent themselves per se and do not have money to hire lawyers. The youth rarely fully explain the history of the Miskitu as war-time enemies of the Sandinistas, unaware of the precedent that exists in the 1986 law case of Damaize-Job v. I.N.S, (US Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit) which argued successfully that all Miskitu should be considered persecuted by the Sandinistas based on their ethnic affiliation as Miskitu. 


Asylum seekers from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba are now flooding the southern U.S. border and have priority status for asylum proceedings. Most are fleeing authoritarian socialist countries whose governments do not allow dissent or freedom of expression among their citizens. Out of all these asylum seekers, the Nicaraguan Miskitu should have a special protected status and be granted asylum. Surely the U.S. owes some loyalty to the Miskitu, especially with the Sandinistas back in power and Daniel Ortega at the helm, the same FSLN party leader and President as during the Contra War.  


Political Autonomy and Yatama 


During 1987 peace negotiations that ended the Contra war, the victorious Sandinista government awarded two politically autonomous regions--The North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions (RACN and RACS)—to the coastal residents. The RACN and RACS were established, each with their own governments, and occupied about a third of the country. The granting of law 28 (the Autonomy Law) was a worldwide recognized achievement for Indigenous rights and self-determination. Law 445 followed in 2003, giving communal land ownership to the native peoples. 


Thirty-five years after fighting for, and being awarded the politically autonomous regions, Miskitu youth now are fleeing their homeland. As 2023 begins, Miskitu American Organization (MAO) director, Carlos H. Thomas, estimates that over 10,000 Miskitu youth have headed to the U.S. An anonymous European NGO official recently commented to me, “It’s shocking that Nicaragua’s future Miskito nation-building project is being destroyed and nothing is being reported on the news.” 


I spoke again with Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera on WhatsApp before the recent Nicaraguan municipal elections in November 2022. I asked him about the Miskitu youth leaving for the U.S. and the implicit loss of votes for his Yatama party. He said, “I’m not concerned with losing votes but more worried about the safety of the migrants and the future of the Miskitu nation and the autonomy project.” 


In the November Municipal elections, the Sandinistas claimed victory in every “Alcaldia” (municipality) in the country, including all those in the RACN and RACS autonomous regions. Yatama held protests in Bilwi in the past, accusing the Sandinistas of voting irregularities and stealing elections. Today, however, the Sandinistas no longer allow Yatama to hold post-electoral protests. 


More Miskitu migrants are expected to leave for the U.S., but questions arise as to whether they can meet the requirements of the Biden administration’s new Immigration regulations.