How desperate would you have to be to embark on a 6,000-mile journey, primarily by foot and through treacherous terrain, to seek refuge in the United States?
Most of us are lucky and privileged enough that we’ll never have to find out. But when two planeloads of Venezuelan migrants were flown without notice into Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in mid-September, the exploitative political stunt exposed a humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding at the border, where thousands of Venezuelans had been arriving after a months-long trek through the dense Panamanian jungle, Central America, and Mexico.
The Vineyard 49, as I’ve been referring to the group of Venezuelans who were caught in DeSantis’s cruel gambit, are among the roughly 180,000 Venezuelan migrants, along with a smaller but still significant number of Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Haitian migrants, who reached the US-Mexico border between October 2021 and September 2022. That’s more than three times the number of Venezuelans apprehended at the border over the same period in the previous year. Between 2015 and 2018, border officials caught an annual average of 100 Venezuelans.
The US government doesn’t recognize the authoritarian regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose repressive, illegitimate, and corrupt government violates human rights and mismanages economic policy to the point of impoverishing most of the nation’s citizens and pushing them to flee. About 95 percent of the population in Venezuela doesn’t have enough income to pay for basic necessities such as food, health care, and education, according to HUMVenezuela, a nongovernmental group that tracks the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Because the United States lacks diplomatic relations with Venezuela, US border officials cannot deport migrants back there. Until earlier this year, the Biden administration was quietly deporting Venezuelan asylum-seekers to third countries, such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic. But at some point, the government shifted course and started releasing Venezuelans caught at the border, giving them summonses to appear in immigration court or putting them on humanitarian parole, apparently because of overcrowded detention facilities. Social media helped spread the word quickly among people in Venezuela that current US policy was to allow them into the country. Videos posted on TikTok detailed preferred routes, fees, and tips about how to make the journey.
The politicization of this year’s extraordinary influx of Venezuelans, typically through points of entry in Texas, has often obscured the migrants’ harrowing and utterly miserable journey to get here. But their challenges don’t end at the border. Here in America, thousands of Venezuelans remain stuck. It will be months before their asylum applications get processed and before they are issued work permits.
That’s a harsh consequence of releasing Venezuelan migrants inside the country: Although they are desperate to find jobs, they cannot work legally.
Unwittingly or not, the Biden administration has created a pool of thousands of Venezuelan migrants — young adult men and young families with children, for the most part — who are living here but can’t support themselves by participating in the workforce. This at a time of acute labor shortages in the US economy.
To better understand why Venezuelans are risking everything to come north and what happens when they arrive, I reported for several days in Boston and New York — where I worked with photographer Oscar Castillo — listening to stories about the trauma they endured to make it to America. José's and Francys’s stories, just two of dozens, follow.
Most Venezuelans who try to reach America start by making their way to the Colombian coastal town of Necoclí, where they have to take a boat to cross the Gulf of Urabá to reach Capurganá, another Colombian coastal town, which borders Panama. It is the last town before the Darién Gap, 66 miles of mountainous and dense jungle between Central and South America.
José, a 28-year-old Venezuelan migrant who was one of the Vineyard 49, left his hometown of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, in mid-June. He was carrying just $50. After hearing from acquaintances and watching videos on social media of others who had migrated and entered the United States, he decided to go for it, even though he has no family here.
In Venezuela, José worked as a security officer for the government, earning about $160 a month, which is barely enough to survive on a daily diet of rice with eggs. But his job became too risky because “he knew too much,” he said. José didn’t want me to use his last name or let us photograph him, for fear of being identified in Venezuela, which might cause trouble for his family there.
When he reached Necoclí, José worked for two days doing odd jobs, like cleaning boats and picking up trash, to earn his fare for the boat ride to Capurganá. He next entered the jungle with dozens of others. “And then you walk and walk,” José told me. “There are monkeys, crocodiles, jungle scorpions, vipers, jaguars.” There are also armed guerrillas, drug traffickers, and armed indigenous Panamanians who charge the migrants for safe passage. The Darién Gap is, in short, one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
This year, more than 160,000 migrants — the vast majority from Venezuela — have crossed the Darién jungle, according to Panamanian authorities. The record figure includes more than 21,000 minors. Migrants often get together and walk in groups. At some point, José’s group of about 15 people had to cross a river with a strong current. “The jungle makes some people very impatient and careless,” he said. A young man in his group was so desperate to get to the other side that he jumped into the river. The current swept him away, and he drowned.
It took José seven days to make it through the jungle. He then traveled through Panama, Costa Rica, and the rest of Central America. He begged strangers for money and got used to feeling hungry. He sometimes hitchhiked. Other times, he talked his way into odd jobs to make enough money to pay a bus fare. But most of the time, he walked. By the time he reached Mexico’s southern border, José had been on the move for a month and eight days.
When all the Martha’s Vineyard migrants were relocated from Joint Base Cape Cod, he was placed in a state-sponsored apartment in Brockton. Frustrated and desperate to work, José wandered, without luck, around Brockton searching for opportunities. He scoured local Latino groups on Facebook looking for a job, any job, to no avail. Then a Venezuelan friend who lives in Atlanta persuaded him to move south. “There’s work here, and I can help you get hired,” José's friend told him.
Two weeks ago, José left Massachusetts.
Francys and her family’s story
Francys Suinaga also knows about walking and hunger. The 34-year-old mother of three left Caracas, Venezuela, with her husband, their children, ages 16, 13, and 12, and the family’s puppy, Luna, on a journey much like José's. I met them on a Saturday morning last month outside a Days Inn in Queens, New York, which the city is using to shelter migrants and other homeless families.
More than 21,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in New York City, according to Mayor Eric Adams. Most have come in buses sent by the city of El Paso, Texas, or by Republican Governor Greg Abbott. In early October, an average of eight buses full of asylum seekers were arriving almost daily at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.
Francys was a geriatric nurse in Caracas but lost her job and, with it, the ability to provide for her family. “We left because, as a parent, I realized that I couldn’t meet my kids’ basic needs: health care, education, food,” she told me. “Life in Venezuela is just not normal.” All they had to eat was eggs, butter, and masa de maiz (maize dough), she told me. Then “los colectivos,” an umbrella term for militant armed groups of civilians allowed to operate by the government, seized her apartment. “I said to myself, my kids deserve a better life.”
It took the family four months to reach the US-Mexico border. “I didn’t think the whole thing was going to be so, so hard,” Francys told me. They walked for 10 days in the jungle because they got lost. They joined a group and the guide charged extra for Francys’s two young daughters — for protection, the guide alleged. They ran out of food — Francys would lose 41 pounds by the time she exited the Darién Gap.
“Once you leave the jungle, you’ve already spent all your money,” Francys said. She and her family stayed for a few weeks in Panama working odd jobs to save up to continue the journey. Then, in Costa Rica, a wrenching decision: Francys decided to leave Luna with a kind woman who offered to take care of the puppy. Francys hopes to bring Luna to America as soon as she is able to pay for her trip.
After Costa Rica, the family traveled through Nicaragua, where, Francys said, federal agents targeting migrants at checkpoints demand bribes to allow them to continue north. Next, the family traveled through Honduras to reach Guatemala. Then came the hardest part of their journey: Mexico. “That cement jungle was way worse than the Darién,” Francys said. Mexican law enforcement officers constantly stop and harass Venezuelans. How can Mexican cops identify Venezuelans? I wondered. Their accent gives them away.
Francys, though, is no victim. About that, she was adamant. “I came here to work, a guerrerear” (to hustle), she said. “I didn’t come here to depend on the government or anybody. But it’s frustrating that we don’t even have access to job training opportunities.”
A long road to nowhere
The Biden administration recently enacted two policies to stem the unprecedented influx of Venezuelans into this country. The first makes use of an emergency public health statute, Title 42, a rarely used section of the US Code that prohibits migrants from entering the country in the name of preventing the spread of infectious diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked Title 42 at the start of the pandemic, and now the Biden administration is doing so in tandem with a deal struck with Mexico that sends Venezuelan migrants to Mexico. Those expulsions began last month. The expelled Venezuelans are setting up camps in Ciudad Juárez, and they are overflowing shelters in Tijuana.
The Biden administration also launched a one-time program that allows up to 24,000 Venezuelans who have a US-based financial sponsor to enter the country temporarily and apply for work permits.
Neither policy addresses the urgent need of the thousands of Venezuelans who are already here: work authorization. What was the point of granting roughly 180,000 Venezuelans entry only for the US government to keep them powerless to help themselves?
Meanwhile, neither Biden administration policy will deter those like José and Francys, whose desperation to live lives of dignity and purpose and to keep their families free of hunger compels them to make a 6,000-mile trek to limbo.