In late July, for the fourth time in 10 months, Daniel Fernandez prepared for what he hoped would be his first asylum hearing. The Venezuelan native gathered items old and new: his asylum application, his Migrant Protection Protocols paperwork, hand sanitizer and a mask.
“They still haven’t said anything official about the hearings,” Fernandez, 30, said a few days before his July 27 date in U.S. immigration court — an appointment he received after three postponements.
Then, later that week, he tapped out a sad-face emoji on WhatsApp: “They canceled the hearings. No start date.”
Related NBC OUT NBC OUT They fled homophobic violence. Now Trump proposals threaten their hopes of U.S. asylum. Amid a backlog of more than 1 million immigration cases and indefinite border restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic , Fernandez and thousands of other migrants like him are supposed to be waiting in Mexico, showing up periodically at courtrooms on the border as their cases wind through American immigration courts.
But Fernandez — a gay man who is HIV-positive and received a diagnosis of clinical AIDS shortly after requesting asylum — said the widespread crime and lack of health care on the Mexican side of the border has left him in a nearly yearlong limbo that is unsafe. The situation comes in contrast to the very reason he seeks asylum in the United States, which is to be safe.
“I did not imagine I would get trapped here in Mexico,” Fernandez, who fled persecution by President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, said. “Being trapped here already has me hopeless.”
An asylum claim based on 'political opinion' Fernandez shared his asylum case with NBC News, after being unable to do so before an immigration judge.
Fernandez first approached the United States-Mexico border on Oct. 31 and attempted to request asylum because of persecution he faced due to being a card-carrying member of Voluntad Popular, or Popular Will, a United States-backed opposition party. In 2015, the group elected the first out gay and transgender members to Venezuela’s National Assembly. He also told border officials he was HIV-positive and hadn’t received medications or blood tests for months, so he didn’t know about the progression of his infection.
In many ways, Fernandez has a textbook asylum case: He claims he was persecuted due to his "political opinion," a category that is explicitly protected in America's asylum statute, unlike being LGBTQ. (The Trump administration recently proposed potential restrictions to asylum claims based on being persecuted for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.)
In his asylum application, Fernandez detailed how government police and pro-government gangs called " colectivos " chased and beat him in the years after he began participating in anti-government protests in the northwestern cities of Valera and Maracaibo.
He also alleged that starting in 2017 he was unable to obtain medication to treat his HIV infection, either because of shortages, political retribution or both — he could never be sure.
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Fernandez’s asylum application recalls a day of “extreme persecution” on June 27, 2017, when protests against Maduro’s efforts to rewrite the constitution reached a violent crescendo.
"We will never surrender,” Maduro said at the time . “And what we couldn't accomplish through votes, we will with weapons.”
Fernandez said that week in Venezuela, he was approached by two unknown men on motorbikes who called his name. They grabbed his phone, threw his belongings all over the street and began “a brutal beating.”
“F , if you keep going to the protests, we will keep f-