Juan David Campolargo

Venezuelan Migrant Crisis in the United States

There is an enormous Venezuelan migrant crisis in the US, and I don’t know much about it, so Samuel and I wrote this essay to inform ourselves of the situation as well as to find ways we could help.

Almost seven million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014. Juan David’s family was one of them. Most have gone to other countries in Latin America (Colombia alone took about 2.5 million), while many other Venezuelans are starting to arrive in the United States.

We will focus on Venezuelans arriving in the country of stars and stripes.

“Isn’t the US far from Venezuela?” 

Yes, it’s far, but that’s not even important. The journey, as motivational speakers like to boast, often becomes the destination because it’s dangerous, and many people die on the way. They must cross jungles, dangerous cities, and many miles from Venezuela to the US. They have to travel through seven countries and let me tell you the journey is far from easy.

Part of the journey is the Darien Gap, a jungle full of thieves, a strong river, and a truckload of wild animals. In this jungle, people die, get kidnapped, or are raped, and it’s horrible.

All you need to know is that crossing this jungle is no joke. And let’s not talk about traveling across Central America or even taking “La Bestia.” Did we talk about crossing the Rio Grande?

Let’s put it this way: the probability of surviving is closer to 0 than 1.

Knowing (or without knowing) this, some still decide to take on the journey. While some survive, lots of them die.

We’ll skip the entire journey, and let’s say you make it to the United States.

Great! or Great?

A whole other range of issues opens up, filled with the darkness of politics, the complexity of incentives, and a casual shitshow.

Why are these migrants coming to the US? Venezuela’s situation is horrible, and they’re looking for better places to live.

Why don’t they stay in other nearby Latin American countries? The economic situation in other countries is undoubtedly better but not that much better. There’s also the “American Dream” thing where people think the US is perfect and you don’t need to work and so on[1].

Why are they incentivized to come to the US? A better life, of course, but they also come here to seek asylum, which allows Venezuelans to live in the country while they wait months and often years for the slow immigration system to hear their claim.

What’s the political game here? These migrants become chess pieces in an intense political battle to win the Midterm and even the Presidential elections in 2024.

You might have heard about the Martha’s Vineyard story where Florida’s governor spent public money to send about 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers from Texas, a red state, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a blue state. Why would he do this? To make a statement to show how immigrants are a burden on red-state resources.

“If the Democrats are pro-immigration, they should take these people to their states” is more or less what Florida’s Governor was thinking. Regardless of politics, tossing people around like this for a political statement makes me wonder what these “chess players” are thinking. 

Whose fault is it? Everyone! Everyone plays a role, from the migrant to the United States government, and yes, American politics. 

Instead of viewing the Venezuelan immigrants as political pawns to pressure the other side of the political aisle, we need to start viewing them as exiles wanting to live a better life[2]

Everything starts and ends with incentives. However, these migrants are here, and what are you going to do? Forget about them? Send them back? Help them? 

The focus must be made on allowing an environment that instigates labor and sustainability for themselves and their families.  Many Venezuelan immigrants are young and educated, with 20% of the population having completed a university diploma[3]. The percentage is similar for some European countries such as Italy, Turkey, Portugal, and Slovakia[4].

What does this tell us?

The Venezuelan immigrant population can help themselves and, in the process, support their local communities. A helping hand must be given to these families: food, shelter, and jobs are the priorities. Allowing asylum seekers to have these opportunities would help them sustain themselves and avoid getting involved with crime to make ends meet. Any possible legal help will alleviate their current difficult situation, and anything helps in this matter.

The Deadly Journey From Venezuela to The US

Can we understand just by explaining and talking about the situation? Of course, not. This is why we’ll take you on a journey to view this situation from the point of view of a typical Venezuelan emigree.

From the beginning, leaving Venezuela, to the end, trying to establish themselves in the US. 

You begin by leaving everything behind. Yes, everything! You can't keep living in Venezuela because public services are nonexistent, social insecurity is prevalent, necessities are scarce, prices for the simplest of items are through the roof, and you don't make enough even to think. 

So you decide to leave the country, as no other part of it is in any better condition. You go with your family and friends; your parents are too old to come, and you promise them to send money from abroad when you can.

But where the hell do you go? You try to find better pastures elsewhere; you consider your options: Colombia or Brazil? The neighboring countries of Venezuela.

But you discard Brazil because it's too dangerous to cross the Amazon rainforest to get to the main cities of Brazil, and you don't even speak the language (Portuguese). Thus, you head to Colombia, walking until you get to the border. Gasoline shortages are everywhere, so you can't go by car; even if you have one, the border is closed irregularly.

Remember, you left your house, belongings, and life behind. You can only carry what you can on your back. Since the border is open irregularly and you can't wait much in the border area as it is highly plagued by organized crime, so you try to smuggle in.

You go through dried-up rivers in the rural areas, you don't know the area, so you pay a smuggler who does. The price to get in is high, but it has to be worth it.

The border between Venezuela and Colombia.

You’re now in Colombia; thankfully, the police or crime lord missed you, so you can now head to the cities to settle and make yourself a new home. But the economic situation in Colombia is terrible but not nearly as bad as in Venezuela. The bolivars, the national currency you brought with you, are worthless internationally, so you start at square one in Colombia. The country is not in great condition, and job opportunities are scarce. Remember, you smuggled in. You don't have a job permit, a visa, or any documents except your Venezuelan passport.

You stay for a few months, but you know it's not sustainable. You notice that the wage of a dishwasher, a job that doesn't ask for documents, is insufficient. 

You start to research other countries.

In Peru, you are not welcome, and you see stories about the lynchings of Venezuelans. You discard the option.

In Ecuador, the internal situation is terrible, too many Venezuelans have gone there, and the political situation is unstable.

You have the pressure to support yourself in this country and your parents back in Venezuela, so you need to make more money in a more stable environment as soon as possible.

So you look up north and find Central America. Panama is stable and has a good economy, but Venezuelans are also not welcome there. Mexico is not a bad option, but right next to it is the best option: The USA.

You know what the US is: what it offers, its size, its economy, and its possibilities are limitless. It would be best if you made enough money not only for yourself, your necessities, and more but also for your parents.

So you work your hardest in Colombia to make enough money for the trip. It's several times more expensive than the one you made from your home in Venezuela, and also, you don't know if it's even enough. But you have to make the trip, and you don't have many other options.

So you head out on your final travel. But between Colombia and Panama is the Darien Gap, a heavily dense rainforest that separates both countries. No roads go through, no ferries go around, and you have no visa to take a plane. You'll have to hike through the Darien Gap. On the way, you meet other Venezuelans with the same plan as you, similar stories as yours, and the same objective as you. You reach the gap after many days of bus travel in Colombia.

Group of Migrants in the Darien Gap.

You dismount and organize with your makeshift group. You head in with what you think is enough food and water.

The Gap is not that big but very dense, so it will take many days to go through.

As days pass, you rethink your conviction: “Do I have to do this? Can’t I try in Colombia? Or even go back to Venezuela? Is the danger ahead of you worth it?”

You don't have the answers, but you keep moving forward. You've paid a smuggler with your group to lead you to the gap. You cross ravines, hills, and depressions, always packed with tropical trees.

On one of the last days, you are found by a group of armed men, and they took your money and that of your group and everything you had. Worse things occurred as women were raped, children were stolen, and dozens were heavily injured.

But somehow, someway, you survived, and there was nothing you could have done to stop them. The encounter morally shakes the group, but you can't stay in the gap, so you keep going forward.

You finally exit the Gap, and now you are in Panama. You are illegally in Panama, so if the police catch you, they'll send you to Colombia. You can't make that trip through the Darien Gap again, so you are careful. You separate from your group as you'll work for a while in Panama City, the capital, to make ends meet. They bid you farewell, and they keep going forward, going north.

You work as a construction worker in a building in the capital for a while. You try to use a different accent than yours as if you are seen as a Venezuelan. Police can inspect your papers; if you have none, you'll be deported if caught. So you use a Colombian accent publicly, and you can’t even bring your Venezuelan accent with you.

A month later, you made enough money by carrying bags of cement around. So you begin your trek, going north. You have enough to take buses through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. At each border crossing, you had to smuggle through so many borders to cross. But now you are almost there, and you are in Mexico now. The biggest country you'll have to go through, the length of it is almost as that of Colombia to where you are now.

But you still have money from the Panama work, so you can still use the bus for a while. You run out of money until you reach the more central parts of the country. In this highly populated area of the country, you can try to do as you did back in Panama and make more money. But time is not in your favor, and you need to start working for more money than whatever you can make illegally in Mexico. Hence, you switch to riding "La Bestia" (The Beast), a free but complex set of railway routes to go north in cargo trains. You ride it until you reach the border, as other Venezuelan groups are doing the same. 

The Bestia Train. Bestia means beast, by the way, and it’s also free, at least in economic terms.

Finally, you made it to the final border you'll have to cross. You've walked almost 2,500 miles to be where you are standing. Months have passed since the beginning of your departure. Money, time, sweat, and blood have been spent to reach the border. You use your last funds to have a smuggler finally lead you into the country, using the rural areas of the Nuevo Leon state to close in your final obstacle: the Rio Grande. You've seen the stories of other Venezuelans drowning in the river trying to cross it, but you are young and know how to swim, so you'll probably make it. The swim wasn't easy. You almost drowned in the middle of the river, as you had to swim in the height of the night. But you made it, and finally, you are in the US. You can finally improve your life and sustain your family back in Venezuela. You think of the possibilities; the plans start racing through your mind. All for it to come crashing down, you've been caught by border patrol agents while in a border town. You don't know what will happen to you now; you don't know the laws and procedures regarding your status. You wait for tomorrow to come and see what happens. 

Since you’re eligible for asylum, border patrol will probably let you stay in the country, but you never know. The border patrol approves for you to stay, and you have one year to submit an asylum application. 

Why don’t we review the asylum process quickly?

Here it is, Asylum Seeking 101.

But before you even think about applying for asylum. You’re tired as hell and barely alive. You need to eat, find a place to live, and get a job. While also thinking about your legality in the country.

You haven’t fully acknowledged that you’ve made it yet once you realize the governor of Texas is putting you on a bus and sending you to a sanctuary city[7]. You get to New York and say, “Ok? thank you. Oh, that’s also the Empire State.” You have family and people who can help in Chicago. You try to find your way there to settle, figure out the details, and start living, primarily working to survive and support yourself and your family back in Venezuela.

This is the experience that many Venezuelans have to go through. That journey was made by yourself, but the journey is often made with babies, single mothers, elderly adults, and just a combination of everything. Some are highly educated, talented engineers and others are trying to find a better life. Some are not as bad as this, and others are worst. Their options are few, and their destinations aren't many.

But every Venezuelan that comes to the US doesn't have many other options. Their home is done for; they had to leave everything behind. They made the exodus to the beyond accompanied by their friends, families, or alone. They come as asylum seekers and refugees to the US. 

If you still don’t understand how severe the Venezuelan migrant crisis is, it’s similar to Ukraine’s[8]. Yes, a country in a war.

They need options for work and a stable source of income. They need food for themselves and their loved ones. They need shelter and a place they can call their new home. They need options, as back in Venezuela, they have none. With these things provided, these people will be working hard, pursuing the American dream, and collectively improving the best country in the world!

This is America.

 

 

Notes

[1] Lastly, there are rumors of the Venezuelan government releasing prisoners and sending criminals to the US. This is similar to the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when the Cuban government sent about 150,000 people, many of whom were released from jails and mental health facilities in Cuba. Yes, this is messed up.

How many Venezuelan migrants are coming with a dark intent? A small number as most folks are coming here to work and find better opportunities.

[2] It similarly mirrors the experience of many in the older generations of the US, coming to the US from Europe for a better life for themselves and their families. Most were welcomed and integrated, jobs were given, and the US reaped the benefits. Why give a different treatment to Venezuelan migrants?

[3] "Integración de los venezolanos en el mercado laboral colombiano" Dany, Bahar Meagan, Dooley Cindy, Huang (2018) Global Economy and Development.

[4] "OECD.Stat Education and Training > Education at a Glance > Educational attainment and labor-force status > Educational attainment of 25-64 year-olds". OECD. 2022

[5] A careful reader will notice the other country next to Venezuela and may ask: “What about Guyana?”

Guyana is one of the poorest countries in South America, and there are no roads that connect the countries. It’s like the Darien Gap but at least ten times as big, and the country isn’t good. What about nearby islands like Trinidad and Tobago? Some Venezuelans have gone there in ways you can’t even imagine, but the situation isn’t great. Many have drowned, and if they catch you, they immediately deport you.

[6] What about other countries in Latin America, like Argentina and Chile? Argentina is highly questionable, and Chile has a good economy but already hosts about 500,000 Venezuelan refugees and no longer welcomes them.

[7] This has been happening and continues to happen. Here’s one example . Or just look up “Venezuelan Migrant Buses,” and you will find many articles.

[8] It’s equally or worse than Ukraine’s refugee crisis but without aid.

 

 

For better readibiltiy, read this essay here

Join my Weekly Memos, and I’ll keep you posted on the situation as well as possible ways to help.