She was one of the most recognizable activists in Nicaragua, protesting a government that has jailed and killed its opponents. Her photo ran in national newspapers; one called her the “face of the rebellion.” Her video of police firing at student protesters went viral. Her confrontations with the government were cited by the U.S. State Department.

Valeska Alemán, 22, paid a price for that notoriety. She was detained twice. Interrogators pried off her toenails. When she decided to leave the country, the United States seemed a natural destination: The Trump administration has been vocal in its opposition to Nicaragua’s crackdown — and its support of the country’s young protesters.

But by the time Alemán arrived at the U.S. border in July, the administration had launched a pandemic-era policy that sends Nicaraguans directly back to their country without letting them apply for asylum. Seventeen days after crossing into Texas, she was put on a plane back to Managua with more than 100 other Nicaraguans, almost all of them opponents of President Daniel Ortega.

Her backpack was full of documents to show U.S. immigration officials that the government appeared ready to kill her. The officials wouldn’t look at them. When she landed back in Nicaragua, it felt as if she was carrying a ticking bomb, proof that she was trying to flee and accuse the government of abuse.

“I thought, ‘Okay, so they’re going to throw me straight back in jail,” Alemán said. “ I’m going to be tortured all over again.’ ”

Moises Alberto Ortega Valdivia and his wife, Jessica Carolina Pavon Pavon, were expelled from the United States in July without being allowed to file asylum applications. (Family photo)

Another expelled asylum seeker, Moises Alberto Ortega Valdivia, 38, swallowed five pages of his asylum paperwork, panicked that Nicaraguan police would find it.

Since taking control in 2017, the Trump administration has narrowed the pool of people who qualify for asylum and sent tens of thousands of applicants back to Mexico to await their hearings from squalid tent camps and shelters.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the administration has gone further, effectively shutting the asylum system down. Most Central American applicants are simply escorted back to Mexico. But Nicaraguans — including political protesters to whom the United States has given rhetorical support — are flown back to the country they tried to escape.

The administration is using a public health order known as 42 U.S.C. that cites “the danger to the public health” of migrants to justify the asylum system’s closure. Mexico has agreed to accept Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. Other nations, such as Cuba and Venezuela, have refused to accept chartered U.S. deportation flights of their own citizens.

In the case of Nicaragua, the United States is sending asylum seekers back to a country the State Department describes as violently repressive.

“Throughout Nicaragua, armed and violent uniformed police or civilians in plain clothes acting as police (‘para-police’) continue to target anyone considered to be in opposition to the rule of President Ortega,” the department says in a travel warning. “The government and its affiliated armed groups have been reported to arbitrarily detain pro-democracy protestors, with credible claims of torture and disappearances.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In a statement, the State Department said it “condemns all forms of political oppression, especially that orchestrated by the corrupt Ortega regime.” But it would not comment on the expulsion of Nicaraguan asylum seekers.

Students who took refuge at the Church of Jesus of the Divine Mercy in Managua, Nicaragua, amid a barrage of attacks by police and armed civilians in July 2018 embrace relatives after Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes negotiated with the office of President Daniel Ortega for their safe transfer to the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Mary.
Students who took refuge at the Church of Jesus of the Divine Mercy in Managua, Nicaragua, amid a barrage of attacks by police and armed civilians in July 2018 embrace relatives after Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes negotiated with the office of President Daniel Ortega for their safe transfer to the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. (Alfredo Zuniga/AP)

Alemán traveled with a family of Nicaraguan asylum seekers to the Texas border. All were university graduates and students of international affairs. Before they left, they reviewed the asylum laws on a U.S. government website.

Ortega Valdivia, the father, said he was imprisoned and tortured by police in 2017, including an episode in which interrogators attached live wires to his genitals. His wife, Jessica Carolina Pavon Pavon, 36, said she was beaten by police officers at a 2018 protest while pregnant and later miscarried. They traveled with their 9-year-old daughter.

The group presented themselves to immigration agents at the international bridge in Eagle Pass, Tex., but were turned back. They then waded across the Rio Grande. Within minutes of their arrival on U.S. soil, a Border Patrol truck approached.

“We’re here for political asylum,” Alemán said in English and Spanish, words she had rehearsed along the journey.

Her case appeared clear-cut. Ortega violently suppresses all opposition. Last year his Sandinista government was accused of killing Eddy Montes, a 57-year-old U.S. citizen and Navy veteran held as a political prisoner. Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said last month that “persistent human rights violations continue to be documented against those who the government perceives as opponents.”

More than 100,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country as refugees or asylum seekers. Eighty-five percent have settled in Mexico or in Central America. But Alemán placed her hope in the United States, which for years under Trump has criticized Ortega’s abuses. On July 17, while Alemán was in Border Patrol custody, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions on the government.

“The United States will continue to take the necessary steps to support the Nicaraguan people and pressure the Ortega regime to stop repressing the Nicaraguan people, guarantee basic civil liberties, and allow the conditions for free and fair elections to work toward the restoration of democracy in Nicaragua,” he said.

People take pictures of bullet holes in the windows of the Church of Jesus of the Divine Mercy in Managua after the first mass following the attacks.
People take pictures of bullet holes in the windows of the Church of Jesus of the Divine Mercy in Managua after the first mass following the attacks. (Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)

Alemán had followed such statements closely and found them heartening.

“It seemed clear to me that the U.S. government was aware of how the Nicaraguan regime was attacking us,” she said. “They would know what I was running from.”

In 2018, the country’s most prominent newspaper, La Prensa, published a portrait of the college student and called her the “face of the rebellion.” The State Department reported on an attack in which the police fired at Alemán and other protesters for 14 hoursas they sheltered in a church near the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. One student was killed.

Alemán recorded a video of herself during that attack, weeping as gunfire cracked in the background. “Mom, forgive me, I went to defend my country. I love you,” she said. It quickly went viral.

Alemán carried copies of the video and the State Department report to the border, along with death threats: tweets and Facebook posts that called her an enemy of the state.

But when she asked an immigration agent in Texas about her credible fear interview, she said, the agent told her those interviews were no longer being offered.

“He said, ‘We don’t do credible fear interviews anymore,’ ” Ortega Valdivia said. “He didn’t explain why. I said I didn’t know it was illegal to apply for asylum in the States.”

Ortega Valdivia, who speaks fluent English, asked for permission to call a lawyer. Those requests were denied, he said. Ortega Valdivia and Alemán say they told immigration agents and guards that they were well-known political activists fleeing persecution.

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees has expressed concern about the policy. The international convention on refugees bars signatories from returning migrants to countries where they are liable to be persecuted or tortured, a principle known as non-refoulement.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to present their protection claim,” said Giovanni Bassu, the commissioner’s representative for Central America. “They should have access to due process. We have raised these concerns with different governments involved.”

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan toldreporters this month that agents may assess asylum claims and decide whether to refer them to asylum officers. But in practice, immigration lawyers say, that rarely appears to be happening.

“The 42 U.S.C. order has completely swallowed all other policies, and it basically says we’re going to expel everyone,” said Claudia Cubas, the litigation director for the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “It’s a violation of both U.S. and international law.”

Alemán said she was kept in a Customs and Border Protection cell for 17 days. She asked repeatedly to make an asylum claim, she said, but was ignored.

A girl waves from a window of a Hampton Inn in McAllen, Tex., last month. A court-appointed monitor for immigrant youths has called on the U.S. government to stop detaining children as young as 1 in hotels before deporting them to their home countries. (Joel Martinez/AP)

Ortega Valdivia and his wife and daughter were sent to a hotel in McAllen, Tex., where dozens of families and unaccompanied children were being held. All tested negative for the coronavirus.

“The guards stayed in the room with us,” Ortega Valdivia said. “We were watched constantly until they came and said, ‘It’s time to go.’ ”

On July 22, they were escorted to an airport and flown to Managua. When the pilot told passengers to prepare for landing, Ortega Valdivia said, some started yelling, “Why are you doing this to us?”

Government officials waited on the tarmac and took photos of the passengers as they stepped off the plane. Police confiscated their national ID cards. Soon news of their arrival hit social media.

“This morning a deportation flight arrived carrying Valeska Alemán,” one government supporter tweeted. “Deported by your Uncle Sam,” read a Facebook post.

Alemán and Ortega Valdivia say they were taken in government vehicles first to a jail, where they were interrogated, and then to relatives’ homes in Managua. In the days that followed, they said, patrol vehicles sat outside the homes. Police showed up and claimed they needed to search for weapons.

“It felt like only a matter of time before they decided to take us back to El Chipote,” said Ortega Valdivia — the prison in Managua where he and other dissidents say they have been tortured. Human Rights Watch this year reported multiple accounts of “torture and ill-treatment, including verbal assaults, beatings, rape, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, mock executions, burning, and fingernail removal.”

Alemán and Ortega Valdivia tried this month to leave the country again. But when they reached the Honduras border, they saw uniformed men everywhere and turned back.

They’re now staying at separate safe houses, hoping the government hasn’t tracked them. Both asked that their full names be used to draw attention to their cases.

“The only option is to leave,” Alemán said. “So we’ll try again when we can.”

Ismael López Ocampo contributed to this report.