Weeks after traversing the Central American jungle, José López and his wife, Lizmerly Agüero, felt like they had made it when they stepped out of the subway and stared at the lights of Times Square.
“I felt a lot of joy, I thanked God and I felt like I was in a dream,” López, 31, said.
The Venezuelan couple and their 4-year-old daughter are among nearly 130,000 Venezuelans who emigrated to the United States in the 11 months from April 2021 to last February, both from Venezuela and other countries like Peru. and Colombia, figures show In the 12 months ending March 2021, according to Border Patrol records, only 4,470 Venezuelans were apprehended at the US border.
The Lopez family has gone from a dark and soggy rainforest, where migrants put their lives in the hands of smugglers, to the freezing cold of New York and the lights of 42nd Street. The most difficult leg of the journey in October last was the 6,400 km on foot and by bus from South America to the border with the United States.
More than six million Venezuelans have fled President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela since 2014, including around four million to settle elsewhere in Latin America. Many of them, like López and his family, are uprooted again.
To a large extent, they have been welcomed in the United States because many tell border officials they are fleeing Venezuela’s socialist regime, a government backed by Russia and China that the United States has sought to overthrow. Without special immigration status, they are released in the United States and await the judgment of their asylum application.
“Venezuelans don’t migrate, they flee,” said Brian Fincheltub, who, as a representative of the Venezuelan opposition movement in the United States, defends migrants from his native country. “Venezuelans have traveled thousands of kilometers with bags and nothing to eat. Obviously they are trying to escape.
The migration is fueled by the economic blow from the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with unemployment, xenophobia and growing political instability in several countries in the region, several Venezuelan migrants and immigration advocates have said. Especially in the second half of 2021 and early this year, the number of Venezuelans soared, at one point becoming the second group of migrants apprehended at the US border after Mexicans.
“For people living on a knife edge in an extremely precarious situation, Covid was the worst thing that could have happened to them, they were already vulnerable,” said Marianne Menjivar, who works on Venezuelan migration for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization. group. “It’s just a tragic situation in the sense that it’s just pieces of paper blowing in the wind.”
Mayra Pérez, 36, and her husband, Luis Agüero, 32, said they fled Venezuela for Colombia due to repression and deprivation. But they had to resort to selling sweets on the streets of Medellin.
“People treat most Venezuelans very badly in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, they don’t want us there,” Pérez said. In October, accompanied by their 6-year-old daughter, Arianna, they embarked on the trip to the United States. They are now in New York.
“I thought there would be xenophobia here. But there isn’t,” Pérez said. “Here they have a lot of respect for your rights.”
The arrival of Venezuelans is part of what the Joe Biden administration hopes will be an unprecedented increase in illegal migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border as the weather improves and political instability and economic hardship hit. parts of Latin America.
It is hoped that the plan of the Casa Blanca para levantar una política de la era de la pandemia que permite a los agents de la Patrulla Fronteriza rechazar a los ciudadanos extranjeros que buscan asylum también contribuya en gran medida al aumento de inmigrantes que llegan a las puertas the United States.
The elimination of Title 42, as the policy is called, prompted some states to sue the Biden administration, while Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas bussed immigrants who were released in his state to the capital of the nation. A statement from his office on Wednesday said migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia and Nicaragua remained between Union Station and the Capitol in Washington.
A Venezuelan made the trip to the United States after leaving Argentina, where she had lived for a year without legal residency, selling empanadas at a train station and working at a fruit stand. María Angélica Reverol ended up flying to Mexico and then on foot to the United States in October. He is now in Chicago, where he says he is trying to get a work permit and legal residency.
“I wanted a country with a good future, and I didn’t find it in Argentina, where I had no job security,” Reverol said. “I could barely take care of myself. There was a limit to everything. »
Like many of the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have arrived at the US border in recent months, he has covered a lot of ground, traveling to Mexico first. He then paid smugglers to take him to Texas. But first, there was a tense night at a shelter run by smugglers. “I didn’t know where I was, I felt alone, even though I was trying to stay calm even though I wasn’t,” Reverol said. “I didn’t know what they could do to me.”
Since then, Mexico has joined Central American countries in requiring visas from Venezuelans who fly, a policy aimed at cutting off the flow of migrants.
But Venezuelans are increasingly choosing to make the journey on foot and by bus, paying smugglers to ferry them through different countries to the US border. This has led to a drop in the number of migrants arriving at the US border, according to Border Patrol data. But at the same time, Panamanian data shows that the number of migrants arriving in this country from Colombia on foot is increasing: 1,153 made the trip in January, compared to just three in January 2021.
Niurka Meléndez, a Venezuelan who heads the group Advocacy for Venezuelans and Aid for Immigrants in New York, said her compatriots were so desperate to flee South America that they were willing to cross some of the most difficult countries. most dangerous in the world.
“We are a target for human traffickers, who for as little as $2,500 sell American Dream tour packages,” he said. “If I say, I’m going, an organized crime group is going to move me, because they see me as a check to be cashed.”
Walking a well-trodden path at the start of their journey, López and his wife, Agüero, feared that the armed men who travel the dangerous Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama might attack them to rob or sexually assault them. They weren’t hurt, but they came out exhausted.
“The hardest part is seeing your daughter in the jungle, covered in mud and wet,” Agüero said. “At night, water enters your tent. And the next day, you have to put on wet clothes, get up at 5 a.m. and keep walking.
While the Darien Gap was risky, migrants said they were more afraid of Mexico. This leg of the journey involved sleeping on the cold floors of basketball courts and avoiding corrupt cops, gang members, or smugglers, known as coyotes.
“There was a lot to worry about, gangs or coyotes or Mexican police catching up with us,” said Luis Herrera, who traveled late last year with his wife and three children. At one point, the police stole $4,800 from them, he said.
But getting to the United States is worth it, migration and immigration experts said, because the chances of being deported are low. Analysts who track Venezuelan migration point out that many Venezuelans are motivated to come to the United States in search of employment opportunities and not out of a credible fear of persecution because they live in a third country.
“If you are Venezuelan and arrive at the US-Mexico border, the chances of being repatriated are low,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “There’s something inciting for people right now who are willing to make the journey to try their luck in a way that maybe wasn’t there before.”
Pérez and her husband, Agüero, 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 government expense.
“The food was good, they gave us juice, cereal, we were very comfortable. We had television, a wife, everything,” Agüero said. “It was a five star hotel.”
Soon released, they flew to Michigan and then to New York, where they now have their daughter in school and have tried to settle down. The family is in the process of obtaining political asylum based on Agüero’s political activities in Venezuela against the regime, which he says led to his persecution.