Harassment in Venezuela, political targeting in the US: Migrants to Tennessee tell their stories
Javir, whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons, migrated to the US from Venezuela. (Photo: John Partipilo)
At 21 years old, Javir and her partner left Venezuela and traveled by foot through seven countries seeking a better life in the U.S.
For months, she walked. She walked through Panama, Nicaragua, Columbia, Mexico. She passed cities and towns, risking assault, robbery and violence from those taking advantage of fleeing migrants.
“You get to a point where you can’t turn back. You can only keep moving forward,” said Javir, whose last name has been withheld to protect her privacy.
She walked through jungles, where she spent days isolated from other people besides her traveling companions.
She learned to swim to avoid drowning in rapid currents.
“If you didn’t know how to swim or hold on to something, the water will take you to the deep where people can’t even see you,” she said.
She climbed mountains and faced hypothermia before finally crossing the Columbian border to Panama, carrying nothing but water, food, medicine, funds to pay the border guards, and the clothes on her back.
When she finally arrived in the U.S., Javir noted that some of the migrants she met along the way didn’t make it to the border.
“Many people don’t arrive. The terrain is dangerous, injuries occur and there’s little medical care. There are animals that can kill you, and many people who rob and kill those traveling,” she said.
“I lived that experience. Thank God I arrived in one piece,” she added.
Javir is one of nearly 6 million Venezuelans who have fled their country’s declining economy, inflation and political unrest since 2014 seeking temporary residency in neighboring countries, including the U.S.
Recently the Biden administration considered easing sanctions on Venezuela to deal with surges of migrants and the energy war against Russia.
In the past few years, Venezuela’s economy has crashed, leading to exponential inflation and widespread unrest. President Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, ended term limits, took control of the country’s supreme court, harassed the press and nationalized private businesses and foreign-owned assets.
Due to the country’s reliance on oil production, which made up a majority of export earnings, tumbling global oil prices led to an immediate crash of the economy.
My father was kidnapped three times. I had to pay the ransom.
– Keila V. Restrepo, who migrated from Venezuela to Tennessee
Hunger gripped the nation, and Venezuelan doctors reported record numbers of children with severe malnutrition. Many starved to death, especially infants reliant on baby formula and parents unable to afford it, according to an expose by the New York Times.
Venezuelans were also no longer able to shop when necessary. Food shortages have meant citizens were assigned numbers indicating their turn to buy groceries and were often required to stand in line for hours.
“As much as I worked and had money, there was no food,” said Keila V. Restrepo, who migrated from Venezuela during the Trump administration and now works as the programs applications coordinator at the immigrant advocacy nonprofit, Conexión Américas.
Migrants or political pawns?
In Texas, Javir and her group were detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before being given a court date and released. Knowing that they could still face deportation, they continued traveling to Tennessee to her partner’s aunt, to find a place to stay and look for work.
And as she settled into her new life, Javir learned that other Venezuelan migrants were flown to “sanctuary cities” by Republican lawmakers in Texas and Florida. Many of the Venezuelan migrants later reported being lured and misled by false offers of jobs and assistance.
In the meantime, Javir and her group were offered help by Nashville’s Hispanic residents and immigrant rights organizations. While a reporter from the Spanish-news outlet Nashville Noticias offered rides, another resident offered them a place to stay. And despite their long journey, weariness and recent arrival, the members of Javir’s group of travelers began to search for jobs, seeking to earn income to send to their families in Venezuela.
I would not want any of my family to go through it. There are so many (migrants) who are not here to tell their stories.
– Javir, a Venezuelan migrant, describing the arduous journey to the US by food
In her search for a job and a vehicle to get to work, Javir became aware of how migrants are negatively viewed in the U.S. Most migrants are people simply working to survive, she said.
“Here you can work and work and invest in your future, but in Venezuela you work only to feed yourself and live that day,” she said.
Income inequality affects route to US
While some Republican lawmakers make the closure of borders a plank of their campaigns — Andy Ogles, the Republican nominee for the 5th Congressional District, has suggested the Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security be tried for treason over border security issues — there is less focus on how wealthy immigrants get to the U.S.
Javier Lima and his wife flew from Venezuela to the U.S. on travel visas after weeks of repeated harassment and blackmail attempts by gangs in their hometown. Although Lima had resisted a $5,000 extortion and took precautions to protect himself, the antagonizers found where he and his family lived.
“They stalked my daughter at school,” he said, adding that help from the government or police was nonexistent.
Leaving everything behind, including his job as an oral surgeon in Venezuela, Lima arrived in the U.S. during the pandemic and sought work. But while applying for political asyulm, Lima and his family still faced discrimination and threats of deportation.
“Life is not simple while being here,” he said.
Restrepo used a temporary work visa to move to the US. She had worked at a bank that was privatized under Chavez and had resisted doing tasks she considered unethical, ultimately leading to her dismissal.
And although she is still awaiting her asylum application to be processed, Restrepo is able to work legally in the U.S. with a work visa, which she must renew every two years. In her role at Conexión Américas, she teaches fellow immigrants about accounting, Excel and taxes.
“I like what I do,” she said.
But like Lima, Restrepo was forced to leave loved ones behind in Venezuela, her income now going to support her household and her family at home.
Lima left behind his mother and sister. Restrepo left behind her father.
“My father was kidnapped three times,” she said. “I had to pay the ransom.”
A new country, a new life
But Venezuelans are not the only ones seeking asylum.
Along her travels, Javir met fellow migrants from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and many others all seeking to flee the same poverty and political instability of their countries.
Throughout the 1950s, interference by the CIA led to political instability in much of Latin America. As a result, many of these countries continue to struggle today.
Faced with few alternatives, migrants leave their countries of origin, their families, lives and property come to the U.S. simply to survive.
“We all have the right to work and live better,” said Lima.
“Tranquility for me does not have a price,” Restrepo added..
Javir is working six days a week, with Sundays being her only day off. She works in hopes of saving money to start her own business in Venezuela and help her family survive.
And if she can, she hopes to save enough money for her family to fly from Venezuela to the US so they won’t need to walk like she did.
“I would not do it again,” she said. “And I would not want any of my family to go through that.”
“There are so many people who are not here to tell their stories,” she added.
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