Basically, Jhonaikel had faith in U.S. law and justice. In fact, that was a big reason why he chose to seek asylum in the United States—after fleeing political persecution in Venezuela, after seeing how corruption and dictatorship and socialism had destroyed his country, he had idealized the United States as a country of law and justice: “I knew at least in the U.S., they followed the law, that they protected human rights.”
Ironically, that very faith and trust may have cost Jhonaikel his chance of winning U.S. asylum. On July 15, the Trump administration announced a new rule (dubbed “Asylum Ban 2.0”) saying it would turn away most people seeking asylum at the southern border who did not first request asylum in a designated “safe third country” at their first opportunity. So far, those so-called “safe third countries” include Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—countries Jhonaikel crossed in order to reach the U.S. border.
Had Jhonaikel crossed the border between ports of entry before July 15, he would have been exempt from this new rule. But because he stayed in Tijuana, waited his turn, and waited to apply for asylum when his number was called in August, it’s likely the judge will either deport Jhonaikel back to Venezuela or send him to Guatemala, where he could face a long detention in poor conditions.
What makes his story more frustrating is that Jhonaikel could have had a fair chance of winning asylum. He says he fled Venezuela because he joined a student protest advocating for democracy and civil rights and the government sent two hitmen after him. The hitmen kicked and bruised him, he says, and although he escaped, he feared next time he wouldn’t be so lucky.
Since 2018, U.S. immigration courts no longer grant asylum to people fleeing “private violence” (such as gang violence or domestic abuse), the most common reason people give for fleeing Central America. But that’s not Jhonaikel’s story. If his story is true and he’s able to prove it, he meets one of the five protected grounds for asylum: He was persecuted by his government on account of his political opinion. Now, because of the Asylum Ban 2.0, it doesn’t even matter if he can prove his case.
In less than two weeks, while most of us are preparing for Thanksgiving week. Jhonaikel will face his final hearing before an immigration judge in San Diego. He’s one of the rare lucky ones who found legal representation through World Relief, but even his representative tells me Jhonaikel’s chances are slim. Together we looked up the judge’s record and found out he’s a former military prosecutor with an 89.6 percent denial rate in asylum cases, one of the highest among immigration judges.
Today, Jhonaikel has lost faith in the U.S. asylum system. I don’t blame him. He tried to do everything “right,” but instead of being given a fair chance to prove his asylum case, he may be punished for following what authorities told him. It’s a punishment that comes at a cost, not just to him, but to us Americans who would be losing a tenacious dreamer with a strong sense of morality and civic duty—precisely the kind of immigrants who helped make America the great country it is.