After weeks of hiking in a Central American jungle, Jose Lopez and his wife, Lizmerle Aguero, felt they had succeeded when they got off the subway and stared at the lights of Times Square.
“I felt so much joy, I thanked God and it felt like I was in a dream,” Lopez, 31, said.
The Venezuelan couple and their 4-year-old daughter are among nearly 130,000 Venezuelans who immigrated to the United States in the 11 months from April 2021 to last February, from Venezuela and from other countries such as Peru and Colombia, according to the figures. By US Customs and Border Protection. In the twelve months ending March 2021, Border Patrol records show that only 4,470 Venezuelans were arrested at the US border.
The Lopez family has moved from a dark and humid rainforest, where immigrants put their lives in the hands of smugglers, to the bitter cold of New York and the lights of 42nd Street. The hardest point of the journey last October was the 6,400 kilometer run. On foot and by bus from South America to the US border.
More than six million Venezuelans have fled Venezuela led by President Nicolas Maduro since 2014, and about four million of them have settled elsewhere in Latin America. Many of them, like Lopez and his family, are being uprooted again.
They have been largely welcomed in the United States because many have told border authorities that they are fleeing the Venezuelan socialist regime, the government backed by Russia and China that the United States sought to overthrow. Without special immigration status, they are released to the United States and await adjudication of their asylum applications.
“Venezuelans do not emigrate, they flee,” said Brian Finchelp, representative of the Venezuelan opposition movement in the United States. Venezuelans walked thousands of kilometers with bags and nothing to eat. They are clearly trying to escape.”
Many Venezuelan immigrants and immigration advocates said immigration was being driven by the economic hit that followed the Covid-19 pandemic, along with unemployment, xenophobia and growing political instability in many countries in the region. Particularly in the second half of 2021 and early this year, the number of Venezuelans skyrocketed, at one point becoming the second largest group of immigrants caught at the US border after Mexicans.
said Marianne Menjevar, who works on Venezuelan immigration for the International Rescue Committee, a group humanitarian organization. “It’s just a tragic situation in the sense that it’s just pieces of paper blown away by the wind.”
Mayra Perez, 36, and her husband, Luis Aguero, 32, said they fled Venezuela to Colombia due to repression and deprivation. But they had to sell sweets on the streets of Medellin.
“People treat most Venezuelans so badly in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, they don’t want us there,” Perez said. In October, they embarked on a trip to the US with their 6-year-old daughter Ariana, who are now in New York.
“I thought there would be xenophobia here. Here they have a lot of respect for your rights,” said Perez.
The arrival of the Venezuelans is part of what the Joe Biden administration hopes will be an unprecedented increase in crossings of illegal immigrants at the US-Mexico border as weather improves, political instability and economic hardship hit parts of Latin America.
The White House’s plan to scrap a pandemic-era policy that allows Border Patrol agents to turn away foreign nationals seeking asylum is also expected to significantly increase the number of immigrants arriving at the gates from the United States.
The repeal of Title 42, as the policy is known, prompted some states to sue the Biden administration, while Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas moved released immigrants in his state to the nation’s capital. A statement issued by his office, on Wednesday, said that immigrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia and Nicaragua were left between Union Station and the Capitol Building in Washington.
A Venezuelan woman made the trip to the United States after leaving Argentina, where she lived for a year without legal residency, selling empanadas at a train station and working in a fruit stall. Maria Angelica Reverol ended up flying to Mexico and then crossing to the United States on foot in October. He’s now in Chicago, where he said he’s trying to get a work permit and legal residency.
“I wanted a country with a good future, and I couldn’t find it in Argentina, where I had no job security,” said Reverol. “I could hardly take care of myself. There was a limit to everything.”
Like many of the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who arrived at the US border in recent months, he cut a lot of ground by traveling first to Mexico. Then he paid smugglers to take her to Texas. But at first, there was a tense night in a safe house run by smugglers. “I didn’t know where I was, I felt lonely, even though I tried to stay calm even though I wasn’t,” said Reverol. “I didn’t know what they could do to me.”
Since then, Mexico has joined Central American countries in requesting a visa from Venezuelan travelers, a policy aimed at stemming the flow of immigrants.
But Venezuelans are increasingly choosing to make the journey by foot and bus, paying smugglers to take them through various countries to the US border. Border Patrol data showed that this has led to a decrease in the number of immigrants arriving at the US border. But at the same time, Panamanian data shows that the number of migrants arriving in that country from Colombia on foot is increasing: 1,153 migrants made the journey in January, compared to just three in January 2021.
Nyorca Melendez, the Venezuelan who heads the Venezuelan and Immigrant Defense Group in New York, said her citizens are so desperate to flee South America that they are willing to travel through some of the world’s most dangerous countries.
“We are a target of human traffickers, who sell tour packages for as little as $2,500 for the American Dream,” he said. “If I say, I’m going there, a criminal group of organized crime will take me, because they see me as a check being cashed.”
Lopez and his wife, Agüero, were walking a tightrope early in their journey, fearful that they would be attacked by armed men who roam the dangerous Darren Gap region between Colombia and Panama to rob or sexually assault them. They weren’t injured, but they came out exhausted.
“The hardest part is seeing your daughter in the woods, covered in mud and wet,” said Aguero. “At night, water enters your tent. And the next day you have to put on wet clothes, get up at five in the morning and keep walking.”
While Darren’s gap was precarious, immigrants said Mexico frightened them the most. That phase of the journey involved sleeping on the cool floors of basketball courts and dodging corrupt cops, gang members or smugglers, known as wolves.
“There was a lot to fear, to be caught by gangs, coyotes or Mexican police,” said Luis Herrera, who traveled late last year with his wife and three children. He said that once the police stole $4,800 from them.
Immigrants and immigration experts said getting to the US is worth it, because the chance of them being sent back is slim. Analysts who track Venezuelan immigration point out that many Venezuelans are motivated to come to the United States in search of job opportunities rather than out of real fears of persecution, because they live in a third country.
“If you are Venezuelan and make it to the US-Mexico border, the chance of you being repatriated is low,” said Andrew Sely, president of the nonpartisan Washington Immigration Policy Institute. “There is something of an incentive for people who are now ready to make the journey to try their luck in a way that may not have been there before.”
Perez and her husband, Aguero, described their joy after crossing the border into Texas in December, despite spending half a day in a detention center.
They said they were released and placed in a hotel at the government’s expense.
“The food was good, they gave us juice and cereal, and we were very comfortable. We had a TV, a wife, everything,” Aguero said. “It was a five star hotel.”
Soon they were released, traveled to Michigan and then to New York, where they now have their daughter in school and tried to settle down. The family is in the process of obtaining political asylum based on Aguero’s political activities in Venezuela against the regime, which he says led to his persecution.
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