Driven from home by U.S. sanctions, Venezuelans hope to find work

Small nonprofits, faith organizations the only refuge for migrants who have made their way to New Mexico

By: - December 21, 2022 5:00 am
At least 10 people are seen in an open-air container train car, many of them resting next to the side of the car. One person adjusts their clothing, a jug of water hanging from their shoulder by a strap. The sky above them is bright but cloudy.

Migrants ride on La Bestia in Mexico in September 2022. (Courtesy photo)

A 20-year-old bank worker left her home country of Venezuela in September with her partner and her uncle, each of them hoping to find work to provide for the family they left behind.

She gave up on her dreams of studying law because her job didn’t pay enough for anything more than feeding herself, and even though tuition at the law school is free, she couldn’t afford transportation to make it to classes or pay for necessary textbooks.

“It was really hard for me because I was the youngest of my family,” she said through an interpreter on Sunday. “Where we were living with my mom, the house is very deteriorated, and I want to help my mom.”

Her uncle and his wife ran a fast food breakfast spot and sold baked goods in Caracas, the capital city, but still could not make enough money to survive.

“You can work 24 hours a day, and it’s still not enough,” he said.

The migrants Source New Mexico spoke with for this story declined to be named for fear of arrest and deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The U.S. Treasury Department and the State Department have maintained economic sanctions on Venezuela for the last 15 years, which wrecked the country’s economy, reduced millions of Venezuelans to poverty, and limited access to medication which has been blamed for 100,000 deaths.

Access to economic opportunities in the United States is limited due to Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allows the United States to deny asylum and deport people detained by immigration police. The policy was expected to end Wednesday, but the U.S. Supreme Court wants a review, keeping in place the tool so far used to turn 2.5 million people away since 2020, leaving migrants under constant threat of arrest and causing strain to the mutual-aid services helping.

Patchwork of help

People in Venezuela are surviving in part because families who’ve migrated send money from South America, Europe and the U.S., said Sage Bird, an American citizen who grew up in Venezuela and left with her two children because of inflation.

“There’s an economic war, where they use the U.S. dollar in Venezuela now,” said Bird, who now lives in Santa Fe. “But when you work there, it’s not enough.”

A faith leader in the Albuquerque area said last week they took in 80 Venezuelan refugees who needed food, a place to sleep and work. One came to her with a broken finger, while another arrived just days before giving birth. Others in interviews described swollen and bleeding feet from walking hundreds of miles.

Four people form a human chain to wade through waist-deep water. Behind them, a rocky embankment, and vast green foliage.
Migrants cross the Atrato River in the Darién Gap in September 2022. (Courtesy photo)

Locals from Albuquerque donated bread, hygiene products and warm clothing, she said.

“Thank God they’ve received a lot of help from the community,” she said. “Currently, what we most need is monetary assistance for us to be able to rent them a place for them to live.”

If the new influx of migrants from Venezuela do not have permission to come into the United States without a visa or a green card, they could stay if they can make a claim under U.S. asylum law or others like the convention against torture, said Carol Suzuki, a professor of law at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Someone seeking asylum needs to leave their country of origin either because they’re being persecuted by their government or their government is unwilling or unable to stop their persecutors, Suzuki said.

That persecution can be on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, Suzuki said. Right now, economic hardship and sanctions fueling those issues are not a reason courts will offer asylum, she said.

More Venezuelans are trying to come into the country at the southern border. Although Suzuki doesn’t know the substance of their claims, she said many are coming in and seeking asylum.

On Oct. 12, the U.S. announced a humanitarian program for Venezuelans similar to the one for Ukrainian refugees.

But it doesn’t really help people coming to the United States without a sponsor, and creates an easier pathway for middle-class and affluent folks from Venezuela, leaving working class people in limbo, Bird said. 

Whiplash effect

Catholic Charities New Mexico is the sole group in the state helping Venezuelan refugees, Bird said.

The problem is the refugees could at any time be picked up by ICE, put in a detention center and forced to wait there until being deported, she said.

Many Venezuelans have already been deported from the United States under Title 42, a Trump-era policy scheduled to end months ago. The policy allows border patrol officers to turn away migrants, including asylum seekers, at the border under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health authorities.

It was scheduled to end Wednesday before a decision from the Supreme Court kept it in place.

On Monday, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts stayed a lower court’s ruling, meaning the policy that expels asylum seekers and migrants to their countries of origin will continue for now. 

Under Title 42, migrants are being sent back to violent environments.

“This had really scary and deadly consequences,” said Sophia Genovese, a senior immigration attorney with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.

Those who do make it through are under constant threat of arrest and detainment by ICE.

“These aren’t appropriate places for asylum seekers to be held, especially when they have communities able to support them once released,” she said.

Numerous people are seen resting on rocks near shallow water at the bank of a clear river. Tree leaves hang above them, and sunlight overexposes the image.
Migrants rest after crossing the Atrato River in the Darién Gap in September 2022. (Courtesy photo)

Under Title 42, people aren’t given the option to file an application for asylum, which Genovese said is a violation of the United States’ obligations under international law. Unless Congress acts to change the policy, this continues to be a vulnerability, she said.

“There’s so much whiplash that occurs, because the courts have become political tools,” Genovese said.

The last time Title 42 was struck down, asylum seekers in Mexico thought they could finally access asylum in the United States, but they were surprised by an injunction that kept it in place, she said.

The New Mexico Immigrant Law Center has asylum workshops across the state for people who have a final destination here, she said. Similar organizations across the country are ready and able to support asylum seekers in their legal journey.

There are some nonprofit organizations providing legal assistance, Suzuki said, and the Border Justice Initiative at UNM’s Law School is slowly developing immigration lawyers.

“We need more competent lawyers to provide advocacy and representation to all of these folks that we know will be coming up to Albuquerque for assistance,” she said.

Tan train cars, some with graffiti, stretch across a length of track laid on sandy dirt and gravel. A dirty white Dodge truck sits on the right of the frame, made small by the train cars.
A section of La Bestia is shown in Mexico in September 2022. (Courtesy photo)

More help needed

Bird has been contacting agencies and nonprofits in Albuquerque to collaborate and said they too have had Venezuelan refugees knocking on their doors.

There may be some other discussions and planning about how to serve these refugees, given the whiplash effect of Title 42, Suzuki said.

Many of the groups helping the refugees are nonprofit organizations relying on volunteers. Suzuki is concerned about what help is available as more people are coming up here.

“What is the infrastructure of the municipalities, at the city or state level?” she asked. “Why do they have to be volunteers and faith groups?”

Bird suggested the local governments in Albuquerque and Santa Fe find a large space like a gymnasium for the refugees to stay while they slowly funnel out to secondary resettlement locations.

“We should welcome them if they wanna stay here, or help them with provisions they need to continue,” she said.

Margaret Wright contributed reporting to this story.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.