14ymedio, Sonia Osorio, María Luisa Paúl, Mario J. Pentón, Miami, August 21, 2019 — First came the pressures and then the threats, until María, a fictitious name for this report, decided to escape Venezuela. Emigration became the only path that this lawyer found to avoid the reprisals of Nicolás Maduro’s regime, a sad fate she shares with thousands of compatriots.
María, her husband, and their daughter decided to travel to Mexico to reach the border with the United States. In Nuevo Laredo they registered themselves on a list to request asylum and went to a shelter with a single bathroom for 40 people, where they slept on a mat.
“At night when my husband went to buy food two coyotes intercepted him and offered to take us across the border for $800 each. The cold was really strong and desperation urged that we go with them,” relates María in an interview from Boca Raton, where she resides after entering the United States in July.
In Nuevo Laredo, authorities moved the family from the shelter to another place at the international bridge that connects with Texas and there they slept in the elements. “My daughter was turning blue from the cold and an official told us that they would give us access to the US,” she remembers.
María’s case is part of a growing trend: as living conditions deteriorate in their country, more Venezuelans opt to travel to the southern border of the United States to request political asylum.
Patricia Andrade, executive director of Venezuela Awareness Foundation, a human rights organization located in Miami, warns that “the problem of the majority of Venezuelans is that they embark upon the adventure without informing themselves of what is going to happen and how you must be prepared.”
On social media migrants exchange recommendations, advice, and some tricks for the crossing, but many minimize the risk.
“The thing is easy, the thing isn’t so difficult. Like, difficult is that they’re going to put you in prison. One has to go with the idea in mind that one is going to go there. That’s all. It’s the most legal thing there could be: requesting asylum. It’s the most legal thing in the world,” explains a Venezuelan via a WhatsApp voice message.
Andrade, via her program Venezuelan Roots, receives each week more than 20 messages from migrants who managed to cross and are in the south of Florida without work, without a home, and without resources to get a lawyer to help them present their asylum case to immigration authorities.
Fleeing from persecution
Angelina Estrada decided to make the dangerous crossing of the border between Mexico and the United States with her two-year-old son. Her desperation drove her to turn to a coyote who on a dark night became her blessing, but also her worst nightmare.
The 32-year-old journalist embarked on the journey from Maracaibo to flee the death threats she received after publishing several critical reports on the operations of the Bolivarian National Police and the poor functioning of the Administration Service of Identification, Migration, and Immigration.
Along with her son, a brother-in-law, and a niece, she traveled first by highway to Colombia, then flew to Cancun and arrived by land at Reynosa, in Tamaulipas, a violent state which from January to June of 2019 recorded 21,537 crimes, 721 of which were homicides, 306 sexual abuse cases, 292 rapes, and 21 kidnappings, according to figures of the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Safety of Mexico.
Estrada registered on the waitlist to present her case, they assigned her number 203, and she waited at a shelter run by a religious group. “I waited a month and they never called me. Afterward the US government made that law that you had to stay in Mexico and that affected me a lot,” she adds.
Recently Washington implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which establishes that people who arrived at or entered the US via Mexico must be returned to that country while their immigration procedures last.
“Sending asylum seekers to Mexico and making them stay in Nuevo Laredo is an unacceptable policy, which puts them in areas controlled by criminal organizations who view migrants as merchandise and a source of income,” believes María Hernández, a member of the Doctors Without Borders team in Mexico.
“This action is made in response to the illegal immigration crisis confronting the United States at its southern border. Throughout the last five years there has been a 2000% increase in asylum requests,” says the US embassy in Mexico. But “nine out of every 10 asylum requests are rejected by an immigration judge, for not meeting the requirements.”
After learning that other migrants at the shelter crossed the Rio Grande, Estrada decided to try it with a coyote who charged her $1,500 and she left alone with her son. A woman drove her to a house where they gave her food and where she waited until a night when the police presence in the area diminished.
“They took me through the back part of a house, and very close by was the Rio Grande, bordering the United States. The area was very dark. They gave me an inner tube (of a tire) and a plastic bag so that my things wouldn’t get wet. The baby got scared and began to cry, I told him to keep ’quiet because the fish were sleeping’ and he calmed down,” she relates.
Estrada and her son got on the inner tube and the coyote pulled it, submerged up to his chest in the water. After reaching the United States bank the man looked very scared, walked about two minutes, instructed her to continue straight until she saw a wall or a bridge, and disappeared, leaving her in absolute darkness.
The Venezuelan took the wrong path and ran into dense vegetation, and there were moments when she fell with the boy in her arms. Dawn came and no matter how far she walked she didn’t make out the bridge, until she heard the sound of a motor and she came out of the undergrowth. She asked for help and fortunately they were Border Patrol agents of the United States.
“I cried like I’ve never cried in my life, I thought that I was going to die there.” One of the officials gave her water and brought her to a transit center where she was interviewed and two days later they let her go. Two and a half months have passed since the crossing and she shudders to remember it.
Estrada can consider herself fortunate. Stories of kidnappings and assaults against migrants are heard everywhere. Many, after passing through that torment and managing to cross the border, are returned to Mexico by American authorities.
Wilfredo Allen, a lawyer specializing in immigration, believes that the desperation and lack of information is a common denominator among migrants. “It’s not the time to go to the border,” he warns. “During this government, going to the border is suicide because the people passing are very few and it’s a schizophrenic system.”
“So there’s no pattern one can follow to determine how people enter through the border. There’s no pattern, it’s chance,” says Allen.
In Reynosa, a Venezuelan couple waits to enter United States territory again after being deported along with their small daughter. Their future is a big question mark, but they insist that they will not return to their country. They were forcing the young man to enlist as a soldier to “defend the homeland and Maduro.” But he insists that he is a cook and that he knows “nothing of arms.”
Editors’ note: This article is part of a project carried out by El Nuevo Herald/Miami Herald, the newspaper 14ymedio, and Radio Ambulante with the sponsorship of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera
The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.