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Latin America Report

Growing Desperation Forces Record Number Of Venezuelans To Cross U.S. Border

Venezuelans cross a shallow patch of the Rio Grande river into Texas.
Joe Frank Martinez
/
Courtesy Val Verde County Sheriff
Venezuelans crossing a shallow patch of the Rio Grande into Del Rio, Texas in April.

As doors close to them in South America – and as they misconstrue TPS in the U.S. – Venezuelan refugees are flocking to the U.S.-Mexico border and South Florida.

Raquel is a single mother and courts clerk from Maracaibo, Venezuela. Six years ago she says she visited Cancún, Mexico, as a tourist. She enjoyed an all-inclusive resort. A tour of the Yucatán pyramids.

But last month Raquel was back in Cancún as a refugee — on her way to cross Mexico's northern desert border and seek U.S. asylum from what she said was political persecution by a dictatorial regime back in Venezuela.

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Raquel (not her real name, which she asked us not to use because her asylum case is still pending) just arrived in Miami with her 4-year-old daughter. She says their border crossing wasn’t as terrifying as it can be for many migrants; but it wasn’t painless, either.

“It was traumatic," she said, "because it wasn’t easy as we crossed over with so many other desperate people to realize how low and dangerous our circumstances had fallen back home in Venezuela.”

The U.S.-Mexico border is suddenly seeing a lot of that Venezuelan trauma. U.S. immigration officials estimate more than 6,000 Venezuelans crossed the frontier just last month, through the desert or the Rio Grande. In the past decade, fewer than a thousand Venezuelans crossed the border on foot each year.

Venezuelans are adding to the border crisis because, as Raquel points out, their own crisis is only deepening. Venezuela’s economy is still in free fall — the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history — and its socialist government is as repressive as ever. Because of the pandemic, countries like Colombia that had previously opened their doors to Venezuelan refugees can’t be as generous now.

So those who haven’t yet left Venezuela — almost a fifth of its population already has in recent years — are setting their sights on the U.S. in an unprecedented surge.

READ MORE: Escape From Venezuela: Refugees Banging on Doors for Food - and World's Attention

“I’m in shock," said Venezuelan expat Patricia Andrade, who heads the nonprofit Venezuela Awareness in Doral, whose Raíces migrant aid program is working overtime right now getting food, clothing and other basics to all those Venezuelans arriving here after crossing the border.

"I thought crossing the river was for other [migrant] communities but not for Venezuelans.”

As she points out, Venezuelans have typically flown into the U.S. But now they’re taking more desperate measures to get into the U.S. — and Andrade points out one of the biggest reasons:

“They think that TPS will be open for them," she said. "But of course that’s wrong.”

TPS is Temporary Protected Status. It lets undocumented migrants from crisis-torn countries live and work legally in the U.S for 18 months and usually renewed — often for years. President Biden recently granted TPS to Venezuelans — but only those who were in the U.S. before March 8. Anyone who's come after that date is not eligible.

Andrade thinks most Venezuelans crossing the border now are ignoring that fine print. As a result, she says, "This will be increasing. It won't stop. More people, I think, will come in the coming months."

PatriciaAndradeDoral.jpg
Tim Padgett
Patricia Andrade of Venezuela Awareness helps a newly arrived Venezuelan refugee find donated clothes at the Doral warehouse of her Raices migrant aid program last month.

One of the newly arrived refugees visiting the Raíces warehouse recently was Marisol (not her real name, either, as her asylum case too is pending). As she picked out donated clothes for herself and her son and daughter, ages 12 and 9, she recounted what drove them to the U.S. border.

Marisol said she'd co-owned a mechanic shop in Maracaibo — until earlier this year, when she says a pro-government customer overheard her badmouth the regime — and she suddenly faced threats of violence and community backlash, forcing her to close her business.

“By then hyperinflation had reduced my salary to nothing anyway," Marisol said. "So I could stay and struggle to buy a pound of cheese every week or take my savings, save my kids from the threats we faced from regime thugs and get them a real future.”

They think TPS will be open for them here, even though that's wrong. So this will be increasing. It won't stop.
Patricia Andrade

She says she sold her house — "for practically nothing" — and bought $1,000 one-way plane tickets to Mexico City last month. Then, she says, they flew to Monterrey in northern Mexico; and from there they made their way to Acuña, the Mexican border town across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas.

“It’s where the Venezuelan WhatsApp network we joined told us the river would be more shallow," she said.

Shallower but still risky, she says — a more than 100-yard-wide crossing whose river currents forced her to plead with other adults crossing to help her keep her young daughter from falling under.

STRUGGLING AND PANICKED

Veteran Mexico reporter Dudley Althaus says the Acuña-Del Rio crossing has become a favorite of the Venezuelans. While reporting on the border crisis for the San Antonio Express-News in April, he came upon a large group of them making a more difficult crossing.

"They were struggling," Althaus. said. "They came out of the water panicked and crying. For them this looked extremely grueling."

Still, Althaus pointed out they had all flown up to the border, avoiding the genuinely grueling and often treacherous trek most Central Americans make from their countries by foot, or dangerous freight trains.

"That's certainly not to minimize the hard migrant journey these Venezuelans were making, too," Althaus said, "but they were sort of what we call business-class border migrants. More professionals and fewer laborers than you see among the Central Americans.

"Either way," he added, "they've definitely brought a new dynamic to the border situation this year."

According to U.S. immigration officials, the vast majority of the Venezuelan asylum seekers are detained, processed and released with ankle bracelets pending their asylum hearings. Only a few hundred so far have been sent back.

When Marisol got to the U.S. and requested asylum, she got a jolt when she learned she and her kids could not in fact receive TPS — and that under her asylum application it could take months before she gets permission to legally work here.

Miami immigration attorney John De la Vega, who says he's getting calls every day now from Venezuelan border crossers who've made their way to Florida, points out they're bringing more misunderstandings about the process than just TPS and work permission.

One of the biggest, he said, involves Venezuelans who've crossed the border after coming from third countries they'd found refuge in previously.

"I'm seeing hundreds of cases of Venezuelans seeking asylum here now after having lived in, say, Colombia or Peru or Brazil for a few years — places where they were given safe haven but now circumstances even there feel too shaky," De la Vega said.

"The problem is, that can create what's called a firm resettlement bar that can get your asylum denied because you'd already found protection in another country before coming here."

De la Vega says he's also hearing stories from clients about kidnapping, rape and other violence they experienced along the border.

"Some Venezuelans get my name and call me before they even leave for the border, and I tell them: I would not put my family through that situation."

Those risks certainly had Marisol's sister Carolina anxiety-ridden. (Carolina came to the U.S. five years ago. She asked we not use her last name since it’s the same as her sister’s.) When Marisol and her children joined Carolina in Fort Lauderdale, Carolina said she broke down.

“This is my niece and nephew," Carolina said, crying as she recalled their reunion in South Florida last month.

"I’m their aunt. I’m supposed to be taking them to the beach, not making them risk their lives swimming a river.”

Marisol says their odyssey and the circumstances that forced it are "distressing, even humiliating." But, she adds, it would be more distressing to have stayed in Venezuela.