Leaving your home country is seldom easy. However, there is something more difficult than migrating: fleeing. The Venezuelan socialism of the Chavista regime forced millions of people to leave their homes, families, cities and lives. This story, similar to the thousands of migrants, tells the journey of a Venezuelan to enter the United States from Mexico by land.
The names you will read are fictitious to protect the privacy of the source cited.
The beginning: Maracaibo
Frank’s story begins in October 2019 in Maracaibo, the capital of the state of Zulia and one of the most representative cities of the Venezuelan territory, a few kilometers from the border with Colombia.
Known for its hot climate, great street food, the Venezuelan gaita (a traditional folk music style mostly heard during Christmas), for its oil, and for the particular idiosyncrasy of Maracuchos (how people from Maracaibo is usually known), Maracaibo, like the rest of Venezuela, suffers from the countless problems that socialism caused.
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An unprecedented energy crisis, fuel shortages, problems with basic services such as water, high cost of living, insecurity and systematic loss of freedoms are some of the daily problems that the average Maracucho stoically faces.
Frank could not take it any longer and decided to flee Venezuela. He decided that his destination would be the United States to try to fulfill the American dream.
Latin America is a nest of corruption. While Venezuela is worse off than the rest of the countries because it is under the control of a tyrannical regime, institutional fragility throughout the region is high. Therefore, he already knew what he was going to encounter outside his country, especially in Mexico.
The long journey
While many families in the United States were preparing to go out to celebrate Halloween with their children, Frank had already prepared his escape from Venezuela. The first plan was simple: to reach Colombia, the neighboring country bordering the state of Zulia, where Maracaibo is the capital.
Frank did not go alone, he was accompanied by his cousin, Lucía. Both paid in Venezuela a transport that, for 40 dollars, left them at the border with Colombia.
Once in Colombia, he arrived in Medellín, capital of the department of Antioquía and the second most populated city in the country. There, he made a crucial decision to succeed in his journey: going to Monterrey (one of the most expensive destinations to get to Mexico from Colombia, with an approximate cost of $800) instead of destinations such as Cancún or Mexico City (with much more affordable prices, approximately $200-300, but where many Venezuelans arrived and were turned back at immigration in Mexico).
In Medellín, Frank and his cousin met another Venezuelan who was also heading to the United States, named Carolina. Frank was in contact with a legal advisor who had several Venezuelan clients (including Carolina).
Although upon arrival in Mexico the customs authorities were insistent, asking tough questions, a situation that has become recurrent for Venezuelans, Frank says that he managed to get through customs by showing a letter of invitation from a relative living in Mexico. He paid more money, because Monterrey, besides being more expensive, was not his main destination, but he was able to pass immigration.
However, her cousin was not as fortunate; the authorities sent her back. “The officials believed she wasr suspicious and did not let her enter Mexico. She is still in Venezuela today.”
Frank emphasizes that Lucía was the only one on the entire flight who was turned back by the officials. The plane, he says, “was carrying about 70 Venezuelans. Few for the number that usually travel to Cancún and other states or cheaper cities”. At that time, Monterrey was the ideal destination for Frank, as it was a state not so considered by Venezuelans to reach Mexico and, from there, migrate to the United States.
With Lucía deported, only Frank and Carolina were left for the time being. They continued on to Hermosillo, capital of the state of Sonora, on a $70 flight. “It’s affordable even though it’s a long trip, it’s like traveling from Miami to Phoenix. In fact, there is a time change of about two hours.”
Both Frank and Carolina had planned to cross the border through Nogales, a city bordering Arizona in the state of Sonora, Mexico. This, because it was one of the few places where the “Migrant Protection Protocols” initiated by the Trump administration in 2019, which sent asylum seekers in the United States to countries like Mexico while their immigration process was being processed, did not apply. Such a process could take months and complicate Frank’s plans.
In Hermosillo, they avoided talking to people at the airport because express kidnapping and threats of deportation to Venezuelans arriving in the area are common, as they know that the vast majority intend to stay or enter to the United States from Mexico. So they quickly, after landing, went to the city’s bus terminal in an Uber to buy a direct ticket to Nogales.
Nogales is a much safer city compared to other border cities in Mexico. The reason, Frank explains, is because while in other cities there is a lot of fighting between gangs, in Nogales only the Sonora Cartel “rules,” and, thus, there is less violence.
A Mexican journalist consulted by El American explained the situation in the city (the journalist is in Mexico, so he also requested anonymity):
In regions like Nogales, where there is a single dominant cartel, the situation becomes “less” violent, as those who control the place seek to keep it relatively peaceful, to prevent the authorities or other criminal groups from intervening and jeopardizing the businesses they have already established. The big problem occurs when there are two or more criminal organizations fighting in the same city or region, for two reasons:
First, because the challenging organization is going to focus on “heating up the plaza” with public executions or high-profile actions, in order to put the dominant organization in difficulty; second, because the war itself between criminal groups involves not only fighting between hitmen, but also costs in weaponry and salaries for their private armies, which many times the cartels pay in the form of “permits” for their cells to engage in extortion or armed robbery.”
Nogales is a border area between Mexico and the United States. In fact, there is a city called Nogales in Sonora and a Nogales in Arizona. The latter is about three hours from Phoenix.
The trip, despite the incident with his cousin, was going well for Frank. In Nogales de Sonora, Frank met another Venezuelan from Maracaibo who was also looking to get to the United States.
“In Nogales there are a lot of Venezuelans, mostly from Maracaibo. Also Cubans. All the Venezuelans in this area were interconnected through WhatsApp groups and we were constantly passing information to each other,” says Frank.
Problems for the protagonist arose when the Migrant Protection Protocols began to be applied in Nogales. A Cuban woman, Frank recounts, had been waiting for months at the shelter for several family members to cross into Nogales from Arizona. While waiting for her family, the policy began to be enforced and when they crossed into the United States to seek asylum, they were not only returned to Mexico, but were sent to Ciudad Juárez, one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico.
Frank, worried for his life, along with a dozen other Venezuelans, mostly from Maracaibo, who were in Nogales, feared he might meet the same fate as the Cuban family. Waiting for asylum in Nogales de Sonora could be an option, however, waiting in Ciudad Juárez was too risky.
“I didn’t have any money, because a policeman swindled me, as well as dozens of Venezuelans in Nogales. I worked doing some internet jobs, earning about $150 a month, which was enough to eat and pay for basic services at the shelter.”
Frank had already been in Mexico for almost two months. He arrived at the end of October and Christmas was approaching. His goal of entering the United States from Mexico became more and more complicated, until a hope arose: Rosa, a Venezuelan with 3 children who was looking to meet her husband in Atlanta and had been in Mexico for two years.
A few days after arriving in the city of Nogales de Sonora, Rosa received a recommendation from a friend who arrived in the United States thanks to a coyote (smuggler of illegal migrants at the border). “This man is very reliable, if you don’t make it across and do your asylum paperwork, he will even give you your money back”. The Venezuelan woman did not think twice, she asked her husband for money to pay the coyote so he could help her get to the United States from Mexico to complete her asylum process.
The days passed and Rosa contacted Frank and the other Venezuelans in the Sonora shelter. She was safe and sound in a U.S. city waiting for a flight to see her husband in Atlanta. This was the final push Frank and the group of Venezuelans in Nogales needed to change their plans. They would no longer wait for a call from immigration but would cross the border illegally to turn themselves in to the authorities.
El Fantasma (the ghost), a “highly respected” gentleman in the Nogales area who works crossing migrants, was in charge of taking Frank and the group of Venezuelans to a border point where the Migrant Protection Protocols would not apply.
Frank and the Venezuelans in the shelter, about twenty people, had already made their decision: to cross with El Fantasma through the border of an area that is a couple of hours from Nogales where the Trump administration’s protocols were not yet in place. It was a matter of crossing, calling 911 and turning himself in to authorities to process his asylum case in the United States.
The source asked that the exact location of the site not be disclosed for security reasons.
Unlike other nationalities, working with Venezuelans is “much easier,” El Fantasma told Frank. He charges Mexicans or Dominicans thousands of dollars to take them to their final destination. Venezuelans did not, they just had to cross a fence and turn themselves in. Therefore, the job had a much lower price, between $700-800 because the risk was infinitely lower.
But here was the problem: after being swindled by a Mexican policeman, Frank ran out of money. He didn’t have $700 to pay El Fantasma. However, he arranged by word of mouth a loan with a Cuban to pay for the crossing.
The day came and the Cuban with whom Frank made the agreement had an emergency, and could not lend him the money. Frank decided to come clean with El Fantasma: “I don’t have the $700 to pay for your trip. Don’t worry about the transportation you sent, I’ll pay for that and that’s it.” The coyote took pity on Frank, as the rendezvous was at strategic point a couple of hours Sonora away and if he didn’t cross now, he probably never would.
“Look Frank, don’t worry, I don’t want to leave you in Nogales because in 2 or 3 days Trump’s policy will also apply here. Give me what you have and I’ll take you.”
Frank and another group of Venezuelans were taken to the exit point along with the more prominent group already at the meeting site.
“There were 24 Venezuelans, almost all from Maracaibo except for a couple from Valencia. I arrived the day we left. We ate well, cleaned up and changed before setting out. They put us all in a Super Duty with Arizona plates, the women and children inside and the men in the cab. It was very cold because it was winter.”
The trip to the border point took four hours. Along the way they could see ghost towns and destroyed houses, with bullet holes in the walls.
“We arrived at a fence that was less than 1.5 ft high after passing a farm and walking several kilometers. We crossed easily, they left us there and indicated that we should call 911 and turn ourselves in to migration”.
Once they turned themselves in, the migrants were interviewed by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, who conducts asylum interviews for migrants who crossed the border illegally, but since they turned themselves in within 48 hours of crossing, they only commit a misdemeanor. Therefore, they could eventually be allowed to be released on bail after a judge examines each individual case.
In January 2020, Frank was sent to La Palma Correctional Facility, which contracts with ICE and is located in El Pinal County, Arizona. He successfully passed the interview with the ICE asylum officer, like most Venezuelans who were in prison after arriving in the United States from Mexico. However, he was not spared a harrowing time in federal prison.
The protagonist recounts that there was verbal abuse against several of his fellow inmates inside the facility. There was also pressure from some ICE officials to deport several of the detained migrants. According to Frank, scare tactics and confusion in interviews with Latinos who do not understand English are quite common. Frank says that they tried to deport several Cubans and Venezuelans to Guatemala or Honduras, so that they could continue their asylum process from there. In some cases, they even tried to deport migrants of these two nationalities back to their countries.
In the case of Cubans, the situation is tragic: the fear of deportation to the island is gigantic because the Castro regime can execute them for treason.
In his time in the penitentiary, Frank comments that a group of Cubans was threatened with being sent to Cuba even though deportation to the island was prohibited because there were no agreements of this nature between the United States and the socialist regime.
The Cubans decided to mutiny, confronted the guards and were taken to the punishment site in solitary confinement. There, Frank says, each of the Cubans unsuccessfully attempted suicide. In the end, these Cubans were transferred to centers in Miami where, at least, they could be visited by family members while they continued their asylum process.
This is not the first case of attempted suicide reported inside an ICE-associated detention center. In an open letter, published on the IMM Print website on August 28, 2020, which identifies itself as “A project for migrant freedom”, there is a strong denunciation of Cuban migrants against the violent treatment received in the La Palma penitentiary center.
All these people attempted suicide along with another 140 people who went on a hunger strike or protested against the treatment in La Palma. We are not trying to end our detention, we just want to have our asylum cases handled in a different detention center. There were 500 Cubans but now there are about 300 Cubans in La Palma.
This is not a detention center like Florence, Reynosa, Matamoros, El Paso, Tijuana, Louisiana, or other centers in the United States. This place has been like Hell due to the treatment of the detainees by the guards. ICE doesn’t listen to our demands or our complaints about the acts of racism, and never visits the center. The humiliation and mistreatment here are making it impossible for us to apply for asylum in this country.Part of the letter
El American contacted the agency to corroborate the information, but it was not confirmed. An ICE spokesperson issued the following statement:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement. Many practices initiated at La Palma, such as the 14-day quarantine period, resulted in reduced detainee-to-detainee exposure among the general population and this aspect was acknowledged in the OIG draft report. ICE takes issue with the accuracy of other findings in the draft report which relied on uncorroborated allegations and lack of appropriate context regarding medical staffing.”
In another case, Frank explains that an ICE official tricked a young Venezuelan man because he did not know English and made him sign a paper agreeing to deportation. According to the protagonist, they also tried to trick him. One of the tactics was to tell the Latinos in broken Spanish “No bail, no bail. Sign here.” The papers could actually be to give consent to refuse to see a judge or accept deportation.
The case of the young Venezuelan is dramatic, as it is a major legal limbo, since Venezuelans cannot be deported from the United States because, like Cuba, there are no deportation agreements between countries.
According to David Smolansky, commissioner of the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States for the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis, the United States in theory cannot deport Venezuelans, “unless they have a criminal record or have committed crimes in the United States.”
El American spoke with Hassan Ahmad, an immigration attorney with more than 15 years of experience, who commented that he himself witnessed ICE officials pressuring migrants to “give up their rights.” The attorney argued that ICE is an agency in urgent need of reform.
ICE is an agency that needs reform. As an immigration lawyer, I’ve seen ICE agents regularly pressure people to give up their rights. Whether Venezuela or any other country accepts deportees doesn’t matter as much as you might think: the goal is to issue as many easy deportation orders as possible. Most people are desperate to find help, and our government takes advantage of their desperation. It needs reform. After all, asylum is legal immigration.Hassan Ahmad
Frank experienced prolonged cases of detention. 7 months, 11 months and even years in detention waiting for a judge to approve bail to get out of the penitentiary center and be able to continue with legal proceedings.
In Frank’s case it was three months in prison. He says he fared better than others because he knew a little English and was able to communicate more fluently with guards and ICE officials. However, the treatment of fellow inmates was hostile, compounded by the psychological pressure of not knowing what will happen to your case and how much your bail will be.
Ultimately, Frank was fortunate. He was not much time in comparison to other Latino migrants and was set a bond of only $6,000. Figures can be larger, $15,000, $25,000 and even more.
Frank’s family was able to bail him out and he is now reunited with them. The process took months and was extremely complex. Shelters, hostile jails and the permanent uncertainty of not knowing if he would be deported to his country, to a “safe third country” or simply be left for years in legal limbo.
That is the price that today hundreds of Venezuelans fleeing socialism at home must pay to live, far away, the American dream.