Milagros Yanes sees the time coming when she will have to board an airplane and leave behind everything she accomplished during her 20 years in the United States: A university degree, a good job, a home and a quiet life with her husband and two children.
The Venezuelan woman says she made a mistake when she agreed to her voluntary removal in 2010, because of bad legal advice and an impulsive decision. But now she's about to be deported to a country suffering through an unprecedented social and humanitarian crisis.
U.S. immigration agents "don't care if I die of hunger in Venezuela," she told El Nuevo Herald. “I have lived more time here than in Venezuela. I studied, worked and gave birth to my two children here. We are honest people, without a criminal record, and we have worked hard … to get to where we are.”
Although the Trump administration has been tough on Venezuela, demanding President Nicolas Maduro's exit, U.S. immigration officials continue to deport Venezuelans to their country.
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The number of Venezuelans deported rose from 182 in 2016 to 248 in 2017, according to official figures. Another 150 were sent back from October 2017 to April of this year.
The U.S. government offers no special protections for the thousands of undocumented Venezuelans living here, and requests for a blanket temporary protection have been ignored.
“It's inconsistent, putting sanctions (on Venezuela) but not giving adequate protection to average Venezuelans who find it increasingly difficult to live there and flee the country,” said Adriana Kostencki, an immigration lawyer and president of the Venezuelan-American Bar Association. “We are forgetting the people, the ones the government should also be protecting.”
20 YEARS IN THE U.S.
Yanes came to the United States with her parents in 1998, when she was 17 years old. They left Caracas after they “lost everything because of the corrupt governments,” she said, and settled in South Florida.
She always knew that she had to work hard to get ahead in her new country. She studied business administration at Miami Dade College and earned a marketing degree from Florida International University.
Her work experience includes jobs with the Cisneros Group and HBO Latinoamerica. She was director of commercial investments and real estate at Anthony Abraham Enterprises until a few weeks ago, when she quit because of her approaching deportation date.
The past year has been a “nightmare” for her and her husband, Luis Mejia, an Ecuadorean who came to Florida on a student visa in 1998. They married in 2011. Both outstayed their visas and signed voluntary removal agreements in August of 2010.
“We signed the voluntary departures at a time of desperation and anger. We were tired of putting our lives in the hands of people who take your money, take advantage and leave you hanging,” she said.
Yanes and Mejia had even bought tickets for their flight out of the country in January of 2011. But a month before, both her parents were diagnosed with cancer — her father with Stage 4 and mother with Stage 2.
Yanes, an only child, decided to stay and take care of her parents, and in 2012 the couple won a delay in their removal, allowing them to legally work and drive. They also bought a house on Brickell.
They were required to check each year with an immigration office in Miramar in Broward County and did so, in a process she described as simple as “going to a bank and making a deposit.”
'THE NEW ADMINISTRATION DOES NOT WANT PEOPLE LIKE YOU'
But that all changed when she went to the immigration office in August, with Donald Trump in the White House by then.
Yanes said she was told to return in a month. When she asked why, she said, an immigration official told her, “It's because the new administration does not want people like you in this country.”
Nestor Yglesias, spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Miami, said it's difficult to “corroborate complaints of verbal abuse based on an incident that happened almost one year ago … especially without the name of the official.”
Nevertheless, he added, “allegations of misconduct by employees of the agency are taken seriously and investigated.” If they are determined to be well founded, he said, “the appropriate measures will be taken.”
When Yanes and her husband returned to the immigration office in September, they were told their requests for extensions had been denied and ordered to report in December to the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) office in Miami.
“That day I left a meeting at work and went to the ISAP office, not knowing that they were going to put an ankle monitor on me. My husband had been there in the morning and got one. They also told us that we had to buy return tickets to our countries by March,” she said.
Yanes recalled that when the couple returned home that night, their 10-year-old son Andres told them the ankle monitor “is what they put on Latinos in this country.” The parents and their children cried together.
Andres has been biting his fingernails and having nightmares since that time. “He gets very nervous if we're late coming home at night. When he sees us, he gives us a hug and cries with relief,” she said.
Arguing that Andres and daughter Isabela, 7, would lose all school credits if they left in March, Yanes won a postponement of their departure order until Friday and then won another extension.
But she knows that she has few options. She quit her job, they sold their house and are staying with friends. Her mother is with them, but her father died from cancer.
“We live like gypsies. We have some things in storage, others in the homes of friends and others on top of the car,” Yanes said.
“AN ORPHAN FROM MY OWN COUNTRY”
Yanes, like many Venezuelans, has an expired passport and cannot get a new one. She tried to renew it last year at the Venezuelan consulate in Puerto Rico but was told there was no paper to print the documents.
“I am an orphan from my own country, and the only one in the family without a passport,” she said. “My husband has an Ecuadorean one, my children U.S. passports and my mother a Venezuelan one.”
Kostencki, who is not representing Yanes, said that international laws require Venezuela to accept the return of citizens deported from the United States, with or without valid passports.
Yanes is still hoping for a legal opportunity to stay in the United States, such as political asylum. If she applies for asylum, she would join tens of thousands of Venezuelans seeking that protection. Venezuelan applications for asylum shot up to 29,250 in 2017, more than double the previous year, according to government figures.
Yanes has made some headway, and on Tuesday she had the ankle monitor removed and was taken off the supervision program. But her husband still has a monitor and a July 31 departure order.
“In my case, they did not tell me about my next step, only that I did not have to report to ISAP,” she said. “I don't know what's going to happen to me, but step by step we are moving forward.”
If she cannot remain legally in the United States, Yanes wants to get a valid Venezuelan passport so the family can emigrate to Ecuador, a country her husband has not seen in 24 years but which offers much better social and economic opportunities than Venezuela.
Her husband would leave behind his mother, a legal U.S. resident, and sister, a U.S. citizen. He would also have to abandon everything he achieved in Miami, including the messenger company he owns.
“To plan a life and then move it to another place is pretty traumatic for everyone, but we have battled with the strength given to us by God. We are not going to allow the governments in Venezuela or here to continue rejecting us. We move forward, wherever,” Yanes said.
Yanes nevertheless worries about how the move would affect her children.
“We are forced, as parents, to take them out of the country,” she said between tears. “That is going to deny them some things that they deserve to have. And perhaps in the future, if we leave, my son will blame me. But there's nothing I can do. What I do promise them is that they are going to be OK. We will be good, wherever we are.”