Marianela Rojas huddled in prayer with her fellow migrants, a tearful respite after crossing a slow-flowing stretch of the Rio Grande and nearly collapsing on someone’s backyard lawn, where, a few seconds before, she walked on American soil for the first time.
“I won’t say it again,” interrupts a US Border Patrol agent, giving orders in Spanish to Rojas and a dozen others to get into a slow-moving detention van. “Only passports and cash in your hands. Everything else – earrings, chains, rings, watches – in your backpacks. Hats and shoelaces too.
It’s a frequent scene across the US-Mexico border at a time of increasing migration. But it is not farmers and low-wage workers from Mexico or Central America who make up the bulk of those crossing. They are bankers, doctors and engineers from Venezuela and they are arriving in record numbers as they flee unrest in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves and pandemic-induced pain in South America.
Two days after crossing Rojas, she left detention and rushed to catch a bus out of the Texas town of Del Rio Between phone calls to relatives who did not know where she was, the 54-year-old woman The year-old recounted fleeing hardship in Venezuela a few years ago, leaving a paying house and a once solid career as an elementary school teacher for a fresh start in Ecuador.
But when the little work she found cleaning houses dried up, she decided to uproot herself again, this time without her children.
“It’s over, it’s over,” she recently said over the phone, crying as her toddler grandson appeared shirtless onscreen. “Everything was perfect. I didn’t stop moving for a second.
Last month, 7,484 Venezuelans were encountered by Border Patrol agents along the US-Mexico border – more than the 14 years for which records exist.
The surprise increase drew comparisons to the mid-century influx of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s communist regime. It’s also the harbinger of a new kind of migration that caught the Biden administration off guard: pandemic refugees.
Many of the approximately 17,306 Venezuelans who have crossed the southern border illegally since January have lived for years in other South American countries, part of an exodus of nearly 6 million Venezuelans since arriving in power of President Nicolás Maduro in 2013.
While some are government opponents fearing harassment and imprisonment, the vast majority escape long-lasting economic devastation marked by power outages and shortages of food and medicine.
With the pandemic still raging in many parts of South America, they had to move again. Increasingly, they are being joined at the US border by people from the countries they originally fled to – even larger numbers of Ecuadorians and Brazilians have arrived this year – as well as by faraway countries hard hit by the virus, such as India and Uzbekistan. .
US government data shows that 42% of all families encountered along the border in May came from places other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the traditional drivers of migration trends. That compares to just 8% during the last surge in migration in 2019. Border Patrol recorded more than 180,000 encounters in May, a two-decade high that includes repeated migrant crossing attempts.
Compared to other migrants, Venezuelans enjoy certain privileges, a reflection of their stronger financial situation, higher levels of education and US policies that failed to deport Maduro but returned the deportation nonetheless. practically impossible.
The vast majority enter the United States near Del Rio, a town of 35,000, and they do not try to escape detention but instead turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents to seek asylum.
Like many of the dozens of Venezuelans The Associated Press spoke to this month in Del Rio, 27-year-old Lis Briceno had migrated once before. After earning a degree in petroleum engineering, she could not be hired in the oil fields near her hometown of Maracaibo without declaring her loyalty to the socialist leadership of Venezuela. So she moved to Chile a few years ago, finding work at a tech company.
But as anti-government unrest and the pandemic ravaged Chile’s economy, sales plummeted and his business closed.
Briceno sold what she could—a refrigerator, a phone, her bed—to raise the $4,000 needed for her trip to the United States. She packed a backpack and left with a heart lock amulet she got from a friend to ward off evil spirits.
“I always thought I would come here on vacation, to visit the places you see in the movies,” Briceno said. “But do that? Never.”
While Central Americans and others may spend months traversing the jungle, boarding freight trains and sleeping in makeshift cartel-run camps en route north, most Venezuelans reach the United States in as little as four days.
“It’s a trip they’re definitely financially prepared for,” said Tiffany Burrow, who runs the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition shelter in Del Rio, where migrants can eat, clean and buy food. bus tickets to Miami, Houston and other cities with large Venezuelan communities.
They first fly to Mexico City or Cancun, where foreign visitors are down sharply, but nearly 45,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the first four months of 2021. Smugglers posing as “travel agencies” have popped up on Facebook, claiming to offer hassle-free shipping to the United States in exchange for around $3,000.
“We do things the way they do here – under the table,” a smuggler said in a voicemail that a migrant shared with the AP. “You will never be alone. Someone will always be with you.
The hefty price includes a guided shipment from Ciudad Acuna, where the bulk of Venezuelans cross the Rio Grande. The tough town a few hundred wet steps from Del Rio attracts both smugglers and deeper-pocketed migrants, as it has been largely spared the violence seen elsewhere on the border.
“If you’re a smuggler in the business of transporting a commodity – because that’s how they view money, weapons, people, drugs and whatever they’re transporting, as a product – then you want to get it through the safest area possible by charging the highest price,” said US Border Patrol Del Rio Sector Chief Austin L. Skero II.
But the number of smugglers caught with weapons has recently increased in the region, and officers who normally track criminals are forced to process the migrants.
The increase in the number of migrants crossing is “purely a diversionary tactic used by the cartels” to commit crimes, Skero said as a group of Haitians carrying young children emerged from a thicket of tall cane carrizo on the river bank.
Once in the United States, Venezuelans tend to fare better than other groups. In March, Biden granted temporary protected status to about 320,000 Venezuelans. The designation allows people from countries ravaged by war or disaster to legally work in the United States and provides protection against deportation.
While newcomers aren’t eligible, Venezuelans who seek asylum — like almost everyone — tend to be successful, in part because the US government corroborates reports of political repression. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, only 26% of asylum applications from Venezuelans have been denied this year, compared to an 80% rejection rate for asylum seekers from poor, poverty-stricken countries. Central American violence.
“I can write their asylum claims almost by heart,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer in Harlingen, Texas, who has represented more than 100 Venezuelans. “These are more educated people who can stand up for themselves and tell their story in a chronological and clean way that judges are used to thinking about.”
Even Venezuelans facing deportation have hope. The Trump administration severed diplomatic ties with Maduro when it recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader in 2019. Air travel is suspended, even charter flights, making withdrawal nearly impossible.
Meanwhile, as the migrants leave Del Rio to reconnect with loved ones in the United States, they are convinced that with sacrifice and hard work, they will have an opportunity denied to them at home.
Briceno said if she had stayed in Venezuela, she would earn the equivalent of $50 a month, barely enough to get by.
“The truth is,” Briceno says, rushing to catch a bus for Houston where her boyfriend has landed a well-paying job in the oil industry, “it’s better to wash toilets here than to be an engineer there. “
Follow Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman.