Fernando and Gabriel Cedeño couldn’t wait to get on the plane. They thought they were headed to Disney World.
Days before, the children, 7 and 10, had watched their parents Maria Sosa and Ronald Cedeño get rid of most of their furniture and belongings. It wasn’t until Sosa started selling their toys and video games that the kids started to ask questions.
“Why are you selling all my toys if we are going just for vacation?” Fernando asked Maria.
The mother replied, “Don’t you want to go to the amusement parks? Just pack and don’t ask too many questions.”
It was the summer of 2016. Outside their home in Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela, soaring violence and food scarcity sent protesters into the streets every day, and the government responded with brutal repression. That year, Guayana ranked as the 11th deadliest city in the world. It had 83 homicides per 100,000 residents.
The children packed their clothes and shoes and the family began its journey into exile. The Cedeños are among thousands of middle and upper class Venezuelans seeking political asylum in the U.S. since their nation became wracked by violence in recent years. Now, more Venezuelans are seeking asylum in the U.S. than people of any other nationality.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says more than 14,700 Venezuelans requested asylum in 2016, a 160 percent increase over the previous year. The trend in 2017 remains the same: the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates that close to 20,000 more Venezuelans sought asylum in the U.S. last year.
As she wrestled with the decision flee her home with her children, Maria, 33, said, “I felt caught between the devil and the clear blue sea.” During a recent interview at her apartment in Addison, she spoke of how tough it was to leave her parents behind.
“My mom told me: ‘We are old enough. The time we have to be alive is short. Your kids have their whole lives ahead of them. Just go’.”
Maria and her husband whisked there kids away on an imaginary trip to Disney World to get them out of the country with as little trouble as possible.
Many people saw their wealth evaporate after the late President Hugo Chavez launched his socialist revolution in 1999. More recently, rampant poverty and the plans of current president Nicolas Maduro to rewrite the nation’s constitution to remain in power are forcing Venezuelans into exile in record numbers.
Many of them are waiting in the U.S.’s clogged immigration courts to find out if they can stay here. Only 1,265 Venezuelans have been granted asylum between 2014 and 2016, according to USCIS.
In Texas awaiting the outcome of their case, the Cedeños rented a modest two-bedroom apartment in Farmer’s Branch. It’s a far cry from their spacious, three-bedroom place with a huge balcony in Venezuela.
In 2008, Maria was working in the private Grupo Santander bank when Chavez nationalized it.
“They warned us to keep the mouth shut when talking to clients if it were not in Chavez favor,” she said. “His pictures were hanging all over the office and as screensavers in our computers.”
Government officials monitored employee’s Facebook pages and WhatsApp chats to see if they posted photos or other items sympathetic to the opposition. Maria said that a tithe was taken out of her salary to support the revolution.
She felt she couldn’t simply watch from the sidelines.
In 2011, both Maria and her husband Ronald joined Vanguardia Popular, one of the opposition parties in Venezuela. They attended political meetings and protests while still trying to keep a low profile.
“If someone dared to join an opposition march, that person was fired,” she said.
But the government’s spying system worked. She lost her job.
By then, Ronald was working as a cashier at the same bank. He quit and started his own business, a car wash and lube center. He made enough money to buy a franchise to sell lottery tickets and two taxis.
Then, in 2014, Ronald became a victim of a ‘express kidnapping’ — a common scheme where Venezuelan gangs seize a person and force them to withdraw large sums of money from ATMs. After that, threatening graffiti appeared on his and his family’s properties.
“On top of the persecution, the currency was devalued and we didn’t make enough money for eating,” he said. “We couldn’t buy rice, meat, shampoo or toilet paper. Our relatives also started to leave the country.”
Younger members of the family like Ronald’s brothers and cousins are now spread throughout South America. The oldest stayed in Venezuela. They survive on the dollars the Cedeños send.
The minimum wage in Venezuela is the equivalent of $6 in the U.S. and the country has the highest inflation in the world. Venezuela holds the top place in the global Misery Index, which ranks countries through various economic indicators.
Prices at the supermarkets are listed in dollars while salaries are in depreciated bolivars. Venezuelan social media explain it thusly: “The only full fridge is that of the morgue.”
A wave of newcomers
Although there is not a breakdown of asylum seekers by nationality at the state level, organizations like RAICES, a refugee and immigrant education and legal services group, the Human Rights Initiative and private attorneys said they’re seeing a lot more clients from Venezuela in North Texas.
Carla Rincón, president of the Venezuela Chamber of Commerce, estimates there are 8,000 to 10,000 Venezuelans in the DFW area. The number is based on the participants in a mock voting exercise last year to protest President Nicolás Maduro’s plan to hold a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution.
“We might be underestimating the numbers because we receive daily calls from people looking for our services,” she added. “And the Consulate (in Houston) doesn’t have reliable numbers because many people are here without papers.”
Carmen Castro, who runs the volunteer organization Muchas Manos in Dallas to help orphanages back in Venezuela, has also noticed the trend. Her organization sends donated clothes, shoes, non perishable food, milk, diapers and medicines to undernourished children in her country, but lately she’s been focused on collecting money for those who are resettling in the Metroplex.
“We respond to emergencies with local campaigns to collect money for food or helping people to pay for health bills,” Castro said. “It is heartbreaking to see how more and more people get here without no network or idea of how to survive and stay.”
The Venezuelan community is slowly creating its own networks. Facebook groups like Venezolanos Unidos en Dallas or VeneDallas are platforms for job offers, services providers, networking events and fundraisings. The Venezuelan diaspora is also finding a place in social media to continue la Resistencia, The Resistance.
“Twitter and Facebook are powerful tools to get organized and help protesters in my country,” said Carmen Virginia Piña, a Venezuelan immigration lawyer, who was granted asylum six years ago and now lives in Fort Worth.
“We send gas masks and first aid kits to the opposition through the few companies that do charter flights. There is less and less channels everyday.”
Piña’s father, Carlos Antonio Piña, was a director of a regional branch of the state-run oil corporation, PDVSA, when Chávez fired more than 18,000 employees. Piña’s participation in the subsequent strike and protests, made him target of attacks by army soldiers. He was shot and survived. He asked his two daughters to seek refuge in the U.S.
“I have an internal fight,” Carmen Piña said. “Sometimes I feel like a coward. I want to be there but at the same time, I see how we are losing Venezuelan lives and nothing matters.”
The asylum backlog
Caught in the asylum backlog, the Cedeños are expecting their interview with immigration in about 3 years. After filing their petition a year ago, they got 2-year renewable working permits with help from a paralegal in Miami.
“We paid a standard $1,200 fee for that help because a lawyer is too expensive,” said Ronald.
Due to limited resources, most Venezuelans are forced to use the services of paralegals in Florida, their main port of entry. But attorneys warn this decision could jeopardize their cases in the long run.
“It is very dangerous that a lawyer is not preparing their asylum petition,” said Dallas immigration attorney Paul Zoltan. “Any mistake could be read as lies or fraud, and a paralegal can’t represent a client in an immigration court.”
The Cedeños arrived in the Dallas suburbs in the middle of the presidential campaign season. They soon learned about Donald Trump’s views on immigrants, and admit they made them afraid.
“We hope we don’t get stigmatized as many immigrants,” Ronald said. “We have our college degrees but we are working here 12 hours a day, paying taxes and keeping our kids in school,” he added.
In Venezuela, Ronald was an electrician. In the U.S., he’s worked at a car wash, cleaned windows and done handyman work in luxurious houses. He also got some gigs in construction.
Maria, a professional in Human Resources, has worked in a pizza parlor, assembled boxes in a printing house, and most recently has been preparing students for the GED test in Spanish.
The kids, Gabriel and Fernando, are adapting fast to American life: they spend endless hours on their tablets and are learning English with a speed their parents envy.
All are anxiously awaiting their immigration interviews. And they don’t have a plan B. Maria said: “We don’t have a country to go back.”
Powered by WPeMatico