DEL RIO, Texas (AP) – Marianela Rojas huddles in prayer with her fellow migrants, a tearful respite after crossing a slow stretch of the Rio Grande and nearly collapsing on someone’s backyard lawn one, where, seconds before, she walked on American ground for the first time.
“I won’t repeat it,” interrupts a US Border Patrol agent, ordering Rojas and a dozen others in Spanish to get into a detention van in slow motion. “Only passports and money in your hands. Everything else – earrings, chains, rings, watches – in your backpacks. Hats and laces too.
It’s a frequent scene across the US-Mexico border at a time of increasing migration. But it is not the low-wage farmers and workers of Mexico or Central America who make up the bulk of those crossing. They are bankers, doctors and engineers from Venezuela, and they arrive in record numbers as they flee unrest in the country with the world’s largest oil reserves and pandemic-induced pain across America. from South.
Two days after Rojas passed, she left detention and rushed to catch a bus out of the Texas town of Del Rio. Between phone calls to loved ones who didn’t know where she was, the 54-year-old said she fled hardship in Venezuela a few years ago, leaving a paid home and a once solid career as a teacher. of primary school for a new start in Ecuador.
But when the odd job she found cleaning houses dried up, she decided to uproot herself again, this time without her children.
“It’s over, it’s over,” she said recently over the phone, crying as her toddler grandson appeared shirtless onscreen. “Everything was perfect. I didn’t stop moving for a second.
Last month, 7,484 Venezuelans were encountered by border patrol agents along the US-Mexico border – more than the 14 years for which records exist.
The surprise increase drew comparisons with the influx of Cubans in the mid-century fleeing the communist regime of Fidel Castro. It’s also the harbinger of a new kind of migration that caught the Biden administration off guard: pandemic refugees.
Many of the estimated 17,306 Venezuelans who have crossed the southern border illegally since January have been living in other South American countries for years, part of an exodus of nearly 6 million Venezuelans since coming to power. of President Nicolás Maduro in 2013.
While some are opponents of the government fearing harassment and imprisonment, the vast majority escape long-standing economic devastation marked by blackouts and shortages of food and medicine.
With the pandemic still raging in many parts of South America, they had to relocate again. Increasingly, they are being joined at the US border by people from countries to which they initially fled – even more Ecuadorians and Brazilians have arrived this year – as well as from distant countries hard hit by the virus. , like India and Uzbekistan. .
U.S. government data shows that 42% of all families encountered along the border in May were from places other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the traditional drivers of migration trends. This compares to just 8% during the last sharp increase in migration in 2019. The border patrol recorded more than 180,000 encounters in May, a two-decade record that includes repeated attempts to cross migrants.
Compared to other migrants, Venezuelans enjoy certain privileges – a reflection of their stronger financial situation, higher level of education, and American policies which failed to eliminate Maduro but nevertheless made deportation almost. impossible.
The vast majority enter the United States near Del Rio, a city of 35,000, and they do not try to escape detention but instead surrender to border patrol officers to seek asylum.
Like many of the dozens of Venezuelans interviewed by The Associated Press this month in Del Rio, Lis Briceno, 27, had already migrated once before. After graduating with a petroleum engineering degree, she could not be hired in the oil fields near her hometown of Maracaibo without declaring her loyalty to the socialist leadership of Venezuela. So she moved to Chile a few years ago, finding work in a tech company.
But as anti-government unrest and the pandemic weighed on the Chilean economy, sales plummeted and his business closed.
Briceno sold what she could – a refrigerator, a phone, her bed – to raise the $ 4,000 needed for her trip to the United States. She filled a backpack and left with a heart lock amulet she got from a friend to ward off evil spirits.
“I always thought I would come here on vacation, to visit the places you see in the movies,” Briceno said. “But do that?” Never.”
While Central Americans and others can spend months walking in the jungle, hiding in freight trains, and sleeping in makeshift camps run by cartels en route north, most Venezuelans reach the United States in less than four days.
“This is a trip they are definitely financially prepared for,” said Tiffany Burrow, who runs the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition shelter in Del Rio, where migrants can eat, clean and buy. bus tickets to Miami, Houston and other cities with large Venezuelan communities.
They fly first to Mexico City or Cancun, where foreign visitors are down sharply, but nearly 45,000 Venezuelans have arrived in the first four months of 2021. Smugglers posing as “travel agencies” have appeared on the site. Facebook, claiming to offer hassle-free transportation to the United States in exchange for around $ 3,000.
“We do things the way they do things here – under the table,” said a courier in a voicemail message a migrant shared with the AP. “You will never be alone. Someone will always be with you.
The steep price includes a guided departure from Ciudad Acuna, where most Venezuelans cross the Rio Grande. The brick-built town a few hundred damp steps from Del Rio attracts both smugglers and migrants with deeper pockets as it has been largely untouched by the violence seen elsewhere on the border.
“If you are a smuggler in the business of transporting a commodity – because that’s how they see money, guns, people, drugs and whatever else they move, as a commodity – then you want to move it to the safest area possible by charging the highest price. price, ”said Austin L. Skero II, head of the Del Rio sector of the US Border Patrol.
But the number of smugglers caught with guns has recently increased in the region, and agents who normally track down criminals are tied up to process migrants.
The increase in the number of migrants crossing is “purely a diversionary tactic used by the cartels” to commit crimes, Skero said as a group of Haitians carrying young children emerged from a thicket of tall canes carrizo on the river bank.
Once in the United States, Venezuelans generally fare better than other groups. In March, Biden granted temporary protected status to approximately 320,000 Venezuelans. The designation allows people coming from countries ravaged by war or disaster to work legally in the United States and provides protection against deportation.
While newcomers are not eligible, Venezuelans seeking asylum – as almost everyone does – tend to be successful, in part because the U.S. government corroborates reports of political repression. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, only 26% of asylum claims from Venezuelans have been refused this year, compared to an 80% rejection rate for asylum seekers from poorer countries and countries. plagued by violence in Central America.
“I can write their asylum claims almost by heart,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration lawyer in Harlingen, Texas, who has represented more than 100 Venezuelans. “They are more educated people who can stand up for themselves and tell their story in a chronological and clean way that judges are used to thinking about.”
Even Venezuelans threatened with deportation have hope. The Trump administration severed diplomatic ties with Maduro when it recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader in 2019. Air travel, even charter flights, are on hold, making the pullout nearly impossible.
Meanwhile, as migrants leave Del Rio to reconnect with loved ones in the United States, they are convinced that with sacrifice and hard work, they will be denied an opportunity to return home.
Briceno said if she stayed in Venezuela she would earn the equivalent of $ 50 a month – barely enough to get by.
“The truth is,” Briceno said, rushing to catch a bus to Houston, where her boyfriend landed a high-paying job in the oil industry, “better to wash the bathroom here than to be an engineer there -low.
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