As crisis deepens in Venezuela, fleeing students flood classrooms in Miami-Dade

Friday, August 25, 2017- Ronald W. Reagan Doral High School principal Juan Carlos Bouè, right, walks down the hallway with Antonio Bonaduce, an 18-year-old recent arrival from Venezuela.
Friday, August 25, 2017- Ronald W. Reagan Doral High School principal Juan Carlos Bouè, right, walks down the hallway with Antonio Bonaduce, an 18-year-old recent arrival from Venezuela.

As Venezuela plunges into a deepening political and economic crisis, some Miami-Dade schools are filling with students from the beleaguered South American nation.

Ronald W. Reagan Senior High in Doral welcomed 150 newcomers this year, most from Venezuela. Nearby John I. Smith K-8 Center registered roughly 100 new pupils. And other area schools have also reported an increase students fleeing unrest.

As conditions continue to worsen in Venezuela, the school system is bracing for even more.

“We have people coming in every single day,” said School Board member Susie Castillo, who represents the Doral area. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in that country. We are prepared.”

And it’s not just Doral, which has become such a hub for Venezuelan immigrants that it’s widely known as Doralzuela. Miami-Dade doesn’t yet have a firm count to compare to previous years, but if the experiences of local charities and legal aid groups are any indication, other schools across South Florida also are likely seeing a flow of Venezuelan students.

Raíces Venezolanas, a charity that supplies immigrants with kitchenware, sheets and other essentials, has helped dozens of new arrivals settle in places like Homestead, Coral Springs and Hialeah over the past few months.

“More and more are arriving every day,” said volunteer Lorena Mepa. “In the last few weeks I’ve seen an average of ten families a week. Mothers and fathers with their children, pregnant women, grandparents. The whole family.”

Adonia Simpson, director of the family defense program at nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice, said her organization has also seen a spike in the number of Venezuelans seeking immigration advice. Many arrive in the United States on tourist visas and apply for asylum, which allows them to stay legally while their case is being heard.

The Trump Administration’s decision this week to impose economic sanctions against Venezuela could bring even more families to Miami. In an executive order signed Thursday, President Donald Trump restricted Venezuela’s ability to borrow money from U.S. creditors — a measure designed to put pressure on President Nicolás Maduro’s regime. If the Trump Administration imposes further economic sanctions, they could worsen an already volatile economic situation and prompt more people to flee.

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Tracey D. Crews, principal of the new Dr. Toni Bilbao Prep Academy in Doral. The school opened for the first time this year. Emily Michot

With an eye toward Venezuela, as well as the overall explosive population growth in Doral, the Miami-Dade school district opened a new K-8 center in Doral this year. Two more projects are in the works: another K-8 Center in northern Doral and a new high school on the site of a building that currently accommodates John I. Smith K-8 Center’s middle school grades. Both are slated for completion over the 2019-2020 school year, but Castillo said the district may need to accelerate the timeline.

“We’re looking at it to see if we have to make changes faster,” she said. Although Doral appears to have enough spots for all of its students right now, Castillo said district officials have discussed busing students to nearby schools with extra space as a temporary measure.

In the meantime, administrators at Ronald Reagan Senior High — which is already about 90 percent Venezuelan — say they are ready.

“We’re assuming if [Venezuela] doesn’t get fixed, it’s going to continue,” said Principal Juan Carlos Bouè.

The story is very similar to the Cuban story. We really feel for them. We’ve been through it. We saw our parents go through it.

Ronald W. Reagan Senior High Principal Juan Carlos Bouè

Last year, the school registered 200 new students in a single week in August. And while that was an especially large number, Ronald Reagan has been steadily accommodating more and more Venezuelan students over the past several years. Every time there’s a new crisis, a new wave of students follows.

“It kind of shows what’s going on in the country,” said Assistant Principal Elena Cabrera.

The students arrive with different levels of English proficiency. Those who studied at private, bilingual schools in their home country are often able to enroll immediately in advanced courses, while others start off in English as a second language classes and take advantage of the extra tutoring offered by the school.

But regardless of their economic background, many of the new arrivals share the traumatic experiences of living in a country where crime is rampant and the rule of law has deteriorated.

Students talk about kidnappings and armed robberies back home, Cabrera said, and about struggling to find basic necessities like soap and toilet paper.

One student told Cabrera she was forced to flee Venezuela after criminals dressed as school employees sneaked into her school and kidnapped a classmate. As they took her classmate away, the criminals pointed at the girl and said: “We’re coming for you next.” Her family immediately sent her to Miami.

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Friday, August 25, 2017- Antonio Bonaduce, an 18-year-old recent arrival from Venezuela, talks about his experience so far attending Ronald W. Reagan Doral Senior High School as Principal Juan Carlos Bouè looks on. Antonio is part of a new influx of Venezuelan students being introduced into the Miami-Dade school system. C.M. GUERRERO.

Senior Antonio Bonaduce, 18, had to leave last year after the security situation in capital city Caracas grew too dangerous, though he didn’t want to talk about what his family had gone through.

Instead, Bonaduce preferred to focus on what he likes about living in Miami.

“I have been lucky with adapting to the school,” he said. “Some students are not as lucky.”

Bonaduce studied at a private school in Caracas, where he took classes in English. He started school at Ronald Reagan last August, a few weeks after arriving in Miami with his family. Although Bonaduce felt “pretty nervous” during the first week, by week two he was in Cabrera’s office asking to be enrolled in more advanced courses.

Now Bonaduce is the president of the school’s debate team and plans to start a Model United Nations club this year. He wants to study international relations in college and then, he hopes, return to Venezuela.

“I want to prepare and return my country to what it once was,” he said. Though many of his classmates say they would rather stay in the United States, where it’s safe, Bonaduce disagrees. “I want to look for my prosperity there,” he said.

The longing for home and the pain of seeing a beloved country fall apart are feelings teachers and administrators at the school — many of them Cuban-Americans — can relate to.

“The story is very similar to the Cuban story,” said Bouè, whose family fled from Cuba when he was a baby. “We really feel for them. We’ve been through it. We saw our parents go through it.”

Cabrera said she thinks it likely “would have been a very different situation” for the school’s Venezuelan students if they had ended up in another state or even another part of the county.

But here, the newcomers are surrounded by other students who understand what they’ve been through. Some have run into childhood friends and neighbors at the school. One of Cabrera’s students even joked that the school should put a Venezuelan flag outside, next to the American one.

“When they get here, there’s a little bit of a piece off their shoulders,” Cabrera said. “They feel like it’s home because there are so many of them.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Johanna Álvarez contributed to this report