DEL RIO, Texas
(AP) — Marianela Rojas huddles in prayer with her fellow migrants
, a tearful respite after trudging across a slow-flowing stretch of the Rio Grande and nearly collapsing onto someone's backyard lawn, where she had stepped on American soil for the first time seconds before.
“I won’t say it again,” a U.S. Border Patrol
agent says as he orders Rojas and a dozen others into an idling detention van. “Only passports and money
in your hands. Everything else — earrings, chains, rings, watches — in your backpacks. Hats and shoelaces, too.”
It's a common sight across the US-Mexico border during times of increased migration, but these aren't farmers and low-wage workers from Mexico or Central America
, who make up the majority of those crossing; they're bankers, doctors, and engineers from Venezuela
, and they're arriving in record numbers as they flee turmoil in the country with the world's largest oil reserves and pandemic-induced pain acr.
Two days after crossing, Rojas was released from 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 recounted fleeing hardship in Venezuela a few years ago, leaving a paid-off home and a once-secure career as an elementary school teacher for a fresh start in Ecuador.
But when the little work she could find cleaning houses dried up, she decided to relocate once more — this time without her children
“It’s over, it’s all over,” she sobbed into the phone recently as her toddler grandson appeared shirtless
on screen. “Everything was perfect; I didn’t stop moving
for one second.”
Last month, 7,484 Venezuelans were encountered by Border Patrol agents along the US-Mexico border, which is more than the total number of Venezuelans encountered in the previous 14 years.
The unexpected increase has drawn comparisons to the mid-century influx of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's communist rule, and it is also a foreshadowing of a new type of migration that has caught the Biden administration
off guard: pandemic refugees
Many of the nearly 17,306 Venezuelans who have crossed the southern border illegally since January have been living in other South American countries for years, part of a nearly 6-million-strong exodus from Venezuela since President
Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013.
While some are government critics afraid of harassment and imprisonment, the vast majority are fleeing long-term economic devastation marked by blackouts and food
and medicine shortages.
With the pandemic still raging in many parts of South America, they have been forced to relocate once more, and they are increasingly being joined at the U.S. border by people
from the countries they initially fled to — even more Ecuadorians and Brazilians have arrived this year — as well as far-flung nations hit hard by the virus, such as India
According to US government data, 42% of all families encountered along the border in May came from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador
, and Honduras
— the traditional drivers of migratory trends — compared to only 8% during the previous sharp increase in migration in 2019.
Venezuelans have certain advantages over other migrants, owing to their stronger financial standing, higher education
levels, and U.S. policies that have failed to remove Maduro while making deportation nearly impossible.
The vast majority enter the United States
near Del Rio, a town of 35,000 people, and instead of attempting to avoid detention, they turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents seeking asylum
Lis Briceno, 27, had already migrated once before, like many of the dozens of Venezuelans The Associated Press
spoke with this month in Del Rio. After graduating with a degree in petroleum engineering, she couldn't get a job in the oil fields near her hometown of Maracaibo without declaring her loyalty to Venezuela's socialist leadership, so she moved to Chile a few years ago, finding work as a welder.
However, as anti-government protests and the pandemic wreaked havoc on Chile's economy
, sales plummeted and her business
was forced to close.
Briceno sold everything she could to raise the $4,000 she needed for her trip to America, including a refrigerator, a phone, and her bed. She packed a backpack and set out with a heart lock amulet she received from a friend to ward off evil spirits.
“I always thought I'd come here for a vacation, to see the places you see in movies
,” Briceno said, “but I've never done this.”
While Central Americans and others may spend months trekking through the jungle, stowing away on freight trains
and sleeping in makeshift camps run by cartels on their way north, most Venezuelans arrive in the United States in as little as four days.
“From a financial standpoint, this is a journey they’re definitely prepared for,” said Tiffany Burrow, who runs the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition’s Del Rio shelter, where migrants can eat, clean up, and buy bus tickets to Miami
, and other cities with large Venezuelan communities.
They first fly to Mexico City
or Cancun, where foreign visitors are down sharply, but nearly 45,000 Venezuelans arrived in the first four months of 2021. Smugglers posing as “travel
agencies” have appeared on Facebook
, claiming to offer hassle-free transportation to the United States for around $3,000.
“We’re doing things the way they do them here — under the table,” a smuggler said in a voice message shared with the AP by a migrant. “You’ll never be alone. Someone will always be with you.”
The steep price includes a guided departure from Ciudad Acuna, where the majority of Venezuelans cross the Rio Grande. The hardscrabble town a few hundred wet steps from Del Rio is appealing to both smugglers and migrants with larger pockets because it has been largely spared the violence seen elsewhere on the border.
“If you’re a smuggler in the business of moving a commodity — because that’s how they see money, guns
, people, drugs
, and everything they move, as a commodity — you want to move it through the safest area possible charging the highest price,” said Austin
L. Skero II, chief of the US Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector.
However, the number of smugglers apprehended with weapons in the area has recently increased, and agents who normally hunt down criminals are now stuck processing migrants.
Skero said as a group of Haitians carrying young children emerged from a thicket of tall carrizo cane on the riverbank that the increase in migrants is “purely a diversion tactic used by the cartels” to carry out crime
Venezuelans fare better than other groups once they arrive in the United States. In March, Biden granted Temporary Protected Status
to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelans, which allows people from war-torn countries to work legally in the United States and protects them from deportation.
While new arrivals do not qualify, Venezuelans who apply for asylum — and almost all do — tend to succeed, partly because the US government confirms reports of political repression. According to Syracuse University
, only 26% of asylum requests from Venezuelans have been denied this year, compared to an 80% rejection rate for asylum-seekers from poorer, violence-plagued Central American countries.
“I almost know how to write their asylum requests by heart,” said Jodi Goodwin, an immigration
attorney in Harlingen, Texas, who has represented over 100 Venezuelans. “These are higher-educated people who can advocate for themselves and tell their story in the chronological, clean way that judges
are accustomed to thinking.”
Even Venezuelans facing deportation have reason to hope: when the Trump administration
recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader in 2019, it severed diplomatic relations with Maduro, making removal nearly impossible.
Meanwhile, as the migrants leave Del Rio to reunite with loved ones in the United States, they are confident that through sacrifice and hard work, they will be able to obtain an opportunity that was denied to them back home.
Briceno stated that if she had remained in Venezuela, she would have earned the equivalent of $50 per month, barely enough to get by.
“The truth is,” Briceno says as she rushes to catch a bus to Houston, where her boyfriend
has landed a well-paying job in the oil industry
, “it’s better to wash toilets
here than to be an engineer over there.”