A Venezuelan attorney decided to flee her country after officials tied to the Nicolás Maduro regime threatened her and her family for refusing to obey orders to perform her work at government agencies “in an incorrect manner.”
Lacking a U.S. visa, she decided to risk a trip to Mexico with her husband and son to attempt to cross the border to the United States. In the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, they added their names to a list of migrants waiting to apply for U.S. asylum and went into a shelter that had only one bathroom for about 40 people, sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
María, who requested that her real name not be used out of fear that it could jeopardize her asylum application, said the border is swarming with smugglers who prey on migrants seeking to get across.
“One night, when my husband went out to buy food, he was intercepted by two coyotes (smugglers) who offered to get us across the border for $800 per person... The coyotes try to take advantage of that desperation,” María said in an interview from Boca Raton, where she has been living since she was able to enter the United States in July.
While in Nuevo Laredo, María and her family were transferred by authorities from the shelter to a spot on the international bridge that links Nuevo Laredo with Laredo, Texas, and had to sleep outdoors. Her daughter became sick. But after a few days a U.S. immigration official told them they could enter the United States for one year, during which time they could press their case for political asylum.
“My daughter was turning blue from the cold and no one was helping us. Then they separated us in some kind of a holding cell. She became depressed, vomited a lot, stressed out, and at that point an official told us we would be allowed entry into to the United States for one year while we proceeded with our case,” she said.
Maria’s case is just one example of a growing trend: Venezuelans used to be able to fly to the United States with a visa, but now a growing number are choosing to go to the southern border to ask for political asylum, unaware of the procedures, the risks and the low odds of being admitted into the country.
The exodus comes as living conditions continue to deteriorate in Venezuela and the United States steps up its pressures on the Maduro regime.
Instructions for crossing
Patricia Andrade, executive director of the Venezuela Awareness Foundation, a human rights organization based in Miami, said the growing number of Venezuelans who are choosing to go to the border is raising concerns. Many make the journey without knowing the reality of what they will face.
The situation on the border has become complicated and people should know the consequences of crossing it illegally, Andrade said.
“The problem with most Venezuelans is that they jump into this adventure without knowing what will happen or how they should prepare. They leave Venezuela and they think that they could face one or two small obstacles,”Andrade said. “They have no idea about the kind of evil that’s out there.”
Venezuelans pick up a lot of tidbits about making the crossing though social media, from others who have managed to cross or friends with relatives who have done it. They frequently describe the process as easy and say the immigrants only need to be ready to spend “about three months in prison.”
Unfiltered advice via text and audio messages also spreads across social media platforms such as WhatsApp. El Nuevo Herald obtained some of those audio messages.
“This move is easy. It is not so difficult. The hard part is that they will put you in jail. One has to be mentally prepared to go. That’s all. It’s the most legal thing to do: to ask for asylum. It’s the most legit thing in the world,” a woman is heard saying in the recording.
Another audio message warns that each asylum case is different. “You have to have your story straight. You know that the main foundation of a political asylum claim is fear, so you have to show fear,” the voice says. “Of all the ones I know, everyone has crossed. I don’t know of anyone who has been sent back...People have even gone across with children without a problem; They’ve been let in.”
Andrade said her organization, which helps Venezuelans in need, gets more than 20 messages a week from people who managed to cross the border and now live in South Florida, without a job or home. What’s more worrying, they don’t have the money to hire lawyers to represent them before U.S. immigration officials.
Angelina Estrada decided to risk getting across the U.S.-Mexico border with her two-year-old son after a long stay in a Mexican shelter, waiting to cross legally. Her desperation led her to a smuggler on a dark night that became a blessing as well her worst nightmare.
The 32-year-old journalist’s odyssey began in April from her home city of Maracaibo, in the northwest region of Venezuela. She said she was fleeing persecution and death threats sparked by her reporting on abuses within the country’s security forces.
She was accompanied by her niece and brother-in-law whose wife, Estrada’s sister, is a U.S. citizen. They first traveled by road to Colombia, by plane to Cancun in Mexico and then by land to Reynosa in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, also in Tamaulipas, is the route that many Venezuelans desperate for U.S. political asylum are choosing, despite the risks in a region with a high number of killings, kidnappings, extortion and sexual assaults.
Tamaulipas recorded 21,537 crimes from January to June of this year, including 721 murders, 306 sexual abuses, 292 rapes and 21 kidnappings, according to figures from the Mexican government’s Executive Secretariat of the National System for Public Safety.
The organization Doctors Without Borders has warned that criminal gangs control Nuevo Laredo, and asylum seekers constantly risk robberies, assaults, extortion, kidnappings and homicides.
Waiting in Mexico
The new agreement between the U.S. and Mexico known as Migrant Protection Protocols requires that migrants who enter the United States from Mexico to apply for asylum be returned to Mexico and wait while their cases are processed.
“To send people seeking asylum to Mexico and force them to stay in Nuevo Laredo is an unacceptable policy. That policy is putting vulnerable people into areas controlled by criminal organizations that see the migrants as merchandise and a source of income,” said María Hernández, part of the Doctors Without Borders team in Mexico.
“This action comes as a response to the illegal immigration crisis faced by the United States on the southern border. Over the last five years, U.S. officials have seen a 2,000 percent increase in asylum applications,” the U.S. embassy in Mexico declared.
That’s because many “potential migrants know that asking for asylum gives them the opportunity to remain in the United States, even if they don’t have a valid argument for asylum. The majority of these arguments do not meet needed requirements,” the embassy added. “In fact, nine out of 10 asylum applications are rejected by immigration judges because they do not meet requirements.”
Terror and anguish
Estrada reached Reynosa with the idea of entering the United States legally to apply for political asylum. She put her name on a list of people waiting to submit their requests, was assigned No. 203 and waited in a shelter run by a religious group.
“I waited a month and was never called. Later, the U.S. government enacted that law that you had to stay in Mexico. That hit me hard because I left Venezuela knowing that I was going be in the shelter about three months, and that I was going to wait for the process in the United States, not in Mexico,” the journalist said. “How was I going to live alone in Mexico with a small child?”
After hearing that other migrants in the shelter had crossed the Rio Grande in groups of 11 aboard some sort of raft, she decided to try it with a coyote who charged her $1,500.
On July 14, a woman led her to the home of the smuggler, where she was given food and told she had to wait because Mexican police were in the area. Nightfall brought terror and anguish for Estrada.
“He took me behind a house, and nearby was the river … that’s the border with the United States. The area was very dark. The moon provided very little light,” she recalled. “He gave me an inner tube from a tire and a plastic bag to keep my things dry. The baby got scared and started to cry. I told him to keep quiet because ‘the fish were sleeping,’ and he calmed down.”
Estrada and her son got on the inner tube and the coyote pulled it as the water reached his chest. After they reached the U.S. side, the smuggler appeared to become very scared, “perhaps afraid of other mafias in the area,” she said.
He walked with her for about two minutes, told her to walk straight ahead until she saw a wall or a bridge. And then he disappeared, leaving her alone in the darkness.
Estrada took the wrong trail and the dense brush made it difficult for her to walk. She fell more than once, with the child in her arms. She heard gunshots from the Reynosa side, and screams like someone was being killed or tortured.
“Who knows, maybe it was the person who brought me across. I could hear animals and snakes moving,” she said. “I stopped to wait for dawn, and I didn’t care any more if I was detained by Mexican officials or the mafias. I only wanted to get out of that area.”
She started walking again at dawn but never found the bridge. She tried climbing trees for a better look, but the branches broke and she fell to the ground. Suddenly, she heard a boat and came out of the brush to ask for help. She was in luck. It was the U.S. Border Patrol.
“I cried like I had never cried in my life. I thought I was going to die there, because I was not drinking water, giving it to my baby, and we only had a few crackers left. The only thing I managed to say to them was ‘I am from Venezuela,’” she recalled.
“One of the officials was very nice. He gave me water. That’s when the process started. They took us to the ‘freezer’ (immigrant slang for a Border Patrol processing center), then to a detention center where there was an interview, and after two days they let me go,” the journalist added.
After a 2 1/2-month trek, Estrada arrived in Boca Raton and now lives there with her sister.
Suddenly, they kidnap you
Not everyone manages to stay in the United States like Estrada.
A young Venezuelan currently in Matamoros, Mexico, who declined to be identified, reached Reynosa with his girlfriend and her son. They planned to wait their turn on the list after being assigned No. 2400, but the lack of security scared them.
“After a week when they didn’t call anyone, a group of Venezuelans decided to cross. We did it because of fear, out of desperation. That day, about 42 people crossed. There were many who nearly drowned,” he told el Nuevo Herald in an interview at a park in Matamoros, where he sleeps under the open skies.
When they reached the U.S. side of the river they were separated by authorities. He was put into one of the cold holding cells known as “freezers,” along with about 80 other migrants. He spent a day there, was taken that night to a detention center in McAllen, Texas, and later to Laredo.
“They put me in another ‘freezer.’ The only food they gave us was a burrito and water. I was detained five days. They never turned off the lights. They did a roll call three times a day. It was very hard,” he recalled.
After the officials reviewed his documentation, he was released in Mexico, in a dangerous part of Nuevo Laredo. “They freed us in an empty terminal with other people. Afterward, no one wanted to leave there because there was talk that there were kidnappings. They had kidnapped two Cubans and a Honduran,” he said.
They slept on the floor. The next day, a truck took away many people, and the migrants were told that it would be the last truck to leave that week. He and a friend decided to pay a taxi to take them to a bus terminal from where they could go on to Matamoros, where they learned that their families had been taken.
“We were kidnapped when we were buying the tickets. It was a bad scene, because everyone there saw what was happening and no one did anything. They took us far away, to a house where they searched us, took away everything and put us in a room with other people kidnapped that same day,” the young man said. “All were immigrants.”
One of the kidnappers interrogated them, looking for information that could help draw a ransom payment from relatives. But neither of the Venezuelans had relatives in the United States, and the contact lists on their cellphones had been damaged when they crossed the river.
When the kidnappers realized the two had no relatives who could pay a ransom, they were taken to a different room. “We spent two hours there, praying, begging God,” the young man said. “When they told us we were going to be released, we could not believe it. They told us not to go back. They put us in a car, took us to a terminal, put us on a bus to Matamoros, with nothing, because they took what little we still had.”
This Venezuelan migrant now faces another great obstacle: He must return to Nuevo Laredo, so he can be transported to the U.S. side of the border for a September hearing before an immigration judge who is considering his asylum request.
At the park in Matamoros, a Venezuelan couple with a young daughter also was waiting for their appointment. The man said he fled Venezuela and asked for asylum because he was pressured to join the Maduro regime’s militias.
“We were forced to sign up to defend the country and defend Maduro. He had refused, saying ‘No, I am not going to do that. I am a cook. I don’t know how to handle weapons.’ When he saw that the threats were getting serious, that’s when we said, ‘We’re going to have to leave,’” the man’s wife told el Nuevo Herald.
Like other Venezuelan migrants, they declined to be identified for fear of reprisal while their asylum cases are pending.
From Venezuela, they went by bus to Medellín, Colombia, where they boarded a flight to Monterrey in northern Mexico and later went by land to Matamoros, then to the border bridge to sign up for the waiting list.
The couple crossed the border to submit their asylum application to U.S. immigration officials, and then returned to Mexico.
Miami immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen said migrants are heading to the southern border out of desperation and without proper information, and the majority have bad experiences.
“This is not the time to go to the border,” he said. “That time has passed, and under this administration, going to the border is suicide because the people who are getting in are very few and it is a schizophrenic system.”
To illustrate his point, he said that one family he represents — including a wife, husband and two children — was sent to Juarez, Mexico while another four-member family was sent to Miami, without an interview. Two members of that family were outfitted with ankle monitors.
“So there is no template that one can follow for determining how people cross the border. There’s no template. It is random,” Allen said. “The system is sick. It is a schizophrenic system that has no template. The rules are made up by whoever is there at that time.”