Migrant bus: Venezuelans in Chicago saw signs of humanitarian crisis months before political collapse
The voice is the Spanish language section of the Sun-Times, presented by AARP Chicago.
When Rafael Briceño Colmenares arrived in Chicago one freezing January night, all he had was the phone number of a woman he had never met.
In his native Venezuela, Colmenares worked as a security guard for the government and later taught music at a college. At one time he had two homes for his three children and his wife.
But by 2018 he had depleted his savings due to inflation and saw the food shortage worsen. He said he had no choice but to flee in an attempt to help feed his family.
“I can’t imagine not being able to feed my kids tomorrow,” he said in an interview conducted in Spanish about the long journey that eventually took him to Chicago. “…Many people died because they had nothing to eat.”
In recent weeks, the state said nearly 900 immigrants — the majority from Venezuela — were sent to Chicago via buses chartered by Texas authorities.
Caught in the middle of a political battle between Republicans in southern states and Democratic leaders elsewhere, thousands of Venezuelans like Colmenares were already fleeing their homeland months before buses started arriving here.
Ana Gil Garcia, a longtime leader of Chicago’s Venezuelan community, calls the current situation that has led to so many leaving South America for the United States a “crisis” that no one here anticipated.
“I’ve been getting phone calls since January, in the middle of the night, and that’s when I realized something was really going on,” Garcia said. One of these calls came from Colmenares.
Last December, the number of Venezuelan encounters at the U.S. southern border reached about 24,800, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics. In comparison, by December 2020, 693 Venezuelans had been met by border agents.
In August, the number soared to more than 25,300.
In recent years, the economic situation in Venezuela has worsened, triggering the latest wave of people fleeing the country, said Lourdes Gouveia, professor emeritus of Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Around 2015, oil prices plummeted after the death of the country’s leader, Hugo Chavez, leading to tough economic times in the major oil exporter and an increase in political oppression and violence, Gouveia said. .
“This is a time when, especially because of the economic collapse, there is a major shortage of medicine, food, basic necessities,” she said. “A middle class is essentially disappearing around this time, and Venezuelans are massively joining the ranks of the poor.”
More Venezuelans have struggled to obtain visas to enter the United States due to poor relations between the two nations, she said.
Additionally, stricter policies during Donald Trump’s presidency and the coronavirus pandemic have made it difficult to come directly to the United States, she said.
Colmenares said he left Venezuela in part because he knew working for the current government meant he would have to take part in corruption; but if he did report it, he could put his family in danger.
He and his neighbors have often been forced to attend political rallies under the threat that their public services will be cut or that they will not receive a monthly food ration from the government.
“There is a dictatorship which they say is a democracy, but there cannot be a democracy when there are injustices and where the people have no voice or have no advantage,” he said. he said in Spanish.
He lived in Colombia and Costa Rica before traveling to Panama, where he sought asylum. However, his case was never resolved and it became increasingly difficult to find work as xenophobia against Venezuelans spread, he said.
Travel to the United States
A contact in Connecticut told Colmenares he could stay with him.
As he made the three-month trip to the United States by plane, bus and even – sometimes – on foot, he met people who wanted to help immigrants, but others, including some police officers, who seemed want to extort money from them. .
When he finally reached the Texas border late last year, he turned into an immigration agent. After authorities released him to a shelter, he discovered that the Connecticut person could no longer house him.
An organization in Texas paid for his plane ticket to Chicago, where he made contact with Garcia. Garcia said some recently arrived Venezuelans had nowhere to go but had heard of job opportunities in Chicago.
Sylvia Acosta Chávez of the Spanish Community Center in Joliet said that unlike other immigrant groups, many recently arrived Venezuelans do not have family here.
“They’re really completely lost and disconnected from everything,” Chávez said.
A job in the hospitality industry and money to send home
For six months, Colmenares lived with Chávez as he had difficulty finding shelter. He got a job in the hospitality industry, and in July he moved in with a colleague.
Working two shifts a day, he sends $1,000 a month to his children and wife in Venezuela and sends another $400 each month to his parents there, plus what he can to his siblings.
He wants to apply for asylum to stay in the United States, but he cannot afford a lawyer. In Texas, he received a piece of paper indicating that he would later be assigned a date to appear in immigration court for deportation proceedings.
Frank Sandoval, a Spanish Community Center paralegal who fled Venezuela years earlier, said the new wave of Venezuelans will face legal challenges. Some have low asylum claims, and none are eligible for Temporary Protected Status if they weren’t in the United States by March 2021.
Things will get even worse in two to three years, Sandoval said.
“People are going to be deported en masse,” he said.
Colmenares recently started English classes at a community college. There is a part of him that is optimistic that the 2024 presidential elections in Venezuela will bring change, but he also knows that conditions could worsen. He has not seen his family for four years.
“We always miss a hug from those we love the most,” Colmenares said. “A hug fills our soul, keeps us going, and I need a hug.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.