Marco Coello, accused of taking part in a 2014 demonstration against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, was beaten and jailed for several months. He eventually fled to the United States. (Photo: Scott McIntyre / The New York Times)
Marco Coello, then a skinny 18-year-old high school student, was grabbed by plainclothes agents of the Venezuelan security services as he joined a 2014 demonstration against the government in Caracas. They put a gun to his head. They attacked him with their feet, a golf club, a fire extinguisher. They tortured him with electric shocks. Then Mr. Coello was jailed for several months, and shortly after his release, he fled to the United States.
Human Rights Watch extensively documented his case in a report that year. The State Department included him in its own human rights report on Venezuela in 2015. With such an extensive paper trail of mistreatment in his home country, his lawyer, Elizabeth Blandon, expected a straightforward asylum interview when Mr. Coello appeared at an immigration office this April in Miami.
“I had this very naïve idea that we were going to walk in there and the officer was going to say, ‘It’s an honor to meet you,’” said Ms. Blandon, an immigration law expert in Weston, Fla.
Instead, he was arrested and taken to a detention facility on the edge of the Everglades. He was now a candidate for deportation. “Every time they would move me around, I would fear that they were going to take me to deport me,” said Mr. Coello, now 22.
Mr. Coello’s case drew extensive media coverage in both Miami and Caracas and, eventually, the intervention of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The senator helped secure Mr. Coello’s release, though he could still be deported.
The case may have been a sign of just how far the government is willing to go to carry out President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration. “It’s very unusual — almost unprecedented — that ICE would arrest an asylum applicant who is at a U.S.C.I.S. office waiting for their asylum interview,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School.
He was referring to two agencies that are part of the Department of Homeland Security but, as Mr. Coello discovered, have very different missions: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles citizenship and asylum cases, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which arrests people believed to be in the country without permission.
In the first three months of the Trump administration, ICE agents arrested some 41,000 people, an increase of nearly 40 percent over the same period last year. At the same time, the administration has expressed a desire to be stricter about allowing people into the country with asylum claims, as most such claims are ultimately rejected.
When Mr. Coello was taken to the Krome Detention Center, another asylum seeker was already there.
Denis Davydov is an asylum seeker who fled Russia as an H.I.V.-positive gay man. (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times).
Denis Davydov, who fled Russia as an H.I.V.-positive gay man, had been on his way back to San Jose, Calif., from a vacation in the United States Virgin Islands. Though it is an American territory, travelers heading to the mainland must pass through Customs and Border Protection — also part of Homeland Security — and when Mr. Davydov did so, he was arrested. Agents flew him to Miami and sent him to Krome, shackled and chained at the wrists and ankles.
Despite his pending asylum case, Mr. Davydov still appeared in the system as having overstayed his original visa. “They would not let him go because he would still be found inadmissible to the United States,” said Jaime I. Ruiz, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. Mr. Davydov, like Mr. Coello, has been released but still faces potential deportation.
“My fear is that going forward this is business as usual,” said Aaron C. Morris, executive director at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit group that provides free legal representation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The group is handling more than 620 open asylum cases. “We’re doing our best to advise the community about this new danger without scaring them all.”
Mr. Coello’s case is all the more striking given that Mr. Trump has attacked Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who has used anti-terrorism laws and military tribunals to prosecute political rivals. Mr. Trump has even called for the release of the opposition leader Leopoldo López from prison. Mr. Coello said that his Venezuelan interrogators tried to coerce him into implicating Mr. López but that he refused.
Mr. Coello’s problems in the United States most likely began when he became drowsy working as a driver for the ride-hailing service Lyft and pulled over to sleep in a parking lot. A police officer rapped on his window, telling him it was private property and writing him a ticket. He was convicted of misdemeanor trespassing and paid a fine of $100 and $92 in court costs, according to court records in Fairfax, Va.
That conviction brought him to the attention of ICE. “Marco Coello has one misdemeanor criminal conviction and did not depart the country in accordance with his visa,” said Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesman, referring to the tourist visa he had arrived on. “As a result, he violated the terms of his nonimmigrant status in the United States.”
Paul Wickham Schmidt, a retired immigration judge who is now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, said that ICE agents could legally arrest individuals in asylum proceedings. “Otherwise everyone could absolutely immunize themselves from removal just by filing with the asylum office,” he said.
But arresting Mr. Coello was also indicative of the Trump administration’s new priorities, he said. “As Jeff Sessions keeps pointing out, anyone here illegally shouldn’t feel safe,” Mr. Schmidt said, referring to the attorney general under Mr. Trump.
Mr. Coello was a high school student in El Hatillo in southeastern Caracas when he joined marches and demonstrations across Venezuela on Feb. 12, 2014, to protest Mr. Maduro, a close ally of Hugo Chávez who took office after Mr. Chávez’s death in 2013.
The protests that day turned ugly, with violence between government forces and civilian protesters, who in some cases threw Molotov cocktails. Mr. Coello, who said he was not involved in the disturbance, was struck on the leg by a tear-gas canister and fell to the ground. Security personnel in plainclothes began to beat him and took him into custody.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with Mr. Coello and five others arrested, the security forces put a gun to his head and doused him in gasoline. “They wrapped a thin mat around his body, tied it with tape, and approximately 10 officers kicked him and beat him with sticks, a golf club, and a fire extinguisher on his ribs and upper body,” the report said. He was tortured with shocks and told to confess to burning the vehicles. He refused.
Mr. Coello was accused of arson, among other charges related to an alleged attack on the Venezuelan attorney general’s office. After months in detention, he was released pending trial and fled to the United States with his father. His mother later joined them.
Following his time in Virginia, where he was studying English, Mr. Coello moved to Miami and found a job as an assistant cameraman at a local studio associated with the Spanish-language station Telemundo.
When he and his lawyer, Ms. Blandon, arrived at his asylum appointment in April, they were passed off to ICE. “We walk in, she didn’t even introduce herself,” Ms. Blandon said of the Citizenship and Immigration Services official who met them. “‘We can’t entertain your claim for asylum. These two gentlemen from ICE can explain.’”
After articles appeared in the local and Spanish-language news media — “Joven torturado en Venezuela es arrestado en Miami por inmigración” was the headline of one article in El Nuevo Herald — Mr. Rubio, a Republican from the Miami area, contacted Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.
The next day, Mr. Coello was released.
Mr. Coello will still have the opportunity to plead for asylum in immigration court. His arrest was legal, but some experts question whether it was the best use of limited resources in an overburdened system. “In years of doing these, I’ve had probably only a few dozen cases where somebody can point to their name in a State Department human rights report and say, ‘That’s me,’” Mr. Schmidt, the former immigration judge, said of Mr. Coello.
With a backlog of nearly 600,000 cases in the system, he asked, “Why clog an already clogged court docket with a case that looks like a slam dunk?”
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