‘I am here, I am free’: how one Venezuelan refugee triumphed against the odds | US immigration


The rough floor of the immigration detention center was Alejandro’s sharpening stone.

For hours each day, he scraped trash against concrete at the River correctional facility in rural Louisiana so he could make rings for his loved ones. He wore plastic Coke bottles down to an “O” shape, using the cylinder to give the rings their form. He knew the bottle would leave the rings too big for the fingers he was making them for: his sister, niece, and best friend. But he had nothing else.

supporting box

Each ring would take eight, 10, 12 hours to make. That was fine – he had time. Who knew how long he would be held, packed into a 10-by-15-meter cell with more than 100 other asylum seekers?

For Alejandro – who uses a pseudonym in this story for fear of retaliation – the detention center was “the blackest part of the darkness”. He had undergone intensive military training in Venezuela, had endured death threats when he wanted to leave the armed forces there, and had crossed the US-Mexico border to surrender himself to the asylum process. But nothing had prepared him for the psychological and physical torture of a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice)detention center.

After being transferred between Ice detention centers and maximum-security prisons in three states, he arrived at the privatized Louisiana detention center surrounded by nothing but fields. The guards there did not let the prisoners sleep, banging on their metal bunks, stacked three high, throughout the night.

“The system works to wear you down to that point without hope,” Alejandro told the Guardian as he sat next to his sister, Oneida Briceno Arcila, in a shared office of the immigration assistance business she’s opened in Florida to help others like her and her brother.

illustration of people talking over a table
‘The system works to wear you down to that point without hope.’ Illustration: Emre Altındağ/The Guardian

An asylum seeker herself who had escaped to Miami years earlier, Oneida has a non-traditional background in legal training – but her brother’s case offered her a trial by fire.

“Without her assistance, I never could have gotten out,” Alejandro said. “Few people had the help I did.”

Alejandro’s story of forced migration is far from exceptional. Today, Venezuelans face the largest external displacement crisis in the Americas, and the second-largest refugee crisis in the world.

The fate of forcibly displaced Venezuelans is at the center of current US political battles over asylum. Migrants have become the pawns of coercive schemes instigated by rightwing US governors who have chartered buses and flights across state lines so they can dump migrants in more left-leaning communities to score political points with their anti-immigrant bases. Some of these cynical stunts have been so intentionally deceptive and cruel that experts have likened them to human trafficking.

Meanwhile, in October, the Biden administration abruptly expanded a pandemic-era immigration policy to expel Venezuelans to Mexico, where migrants and asylum seekers often become the targets of rape, kidnapping, and other serious crimes.

To counter the bad optics of this sudden hardline turn, the Biden White House has simultaneously created a program for Venezuelans to come to the US legally through a process called parole. But the new initiative has limited slots and includes requirements that will disqualify all but the wealthiest, best connected applicants who can provide for their own commercial air travel to the US, afford valid passports, and find someone stateside who’s willing to financially support them, among other stringent requirements.

In short, the administration has created a legal pathway that Venezuela’s most vulnerable probably cannot even qualify for, while effectively choking off many Venezuelans’ legal right to ask for asylum at the US-Mexico border.

This restrictive approach comes as the situation in Venezuela remains dire. More than 7 million Venezuelans have been displaced from their country since 2001. But the mass migration of less privileged sectors of society under severe humanitarian distress started in 2014, during what Venezuelans simply refer to as “the crisis”.

By 2014, oil prices had dramatically declined, leading to the retraction of government-funded social services. By that time, the death of Hugo Chávez had led to a change in government leadership, which saw the increasing influence of hardline actors in the ruling party.

In the shadow of coup attempts (in 2002 and 2020), US-backed economic sanctions and freezing of assets, discontent with the government and popular anti-crime sentiments, the Venezuelan state ramped up militarized domestic policing and political control in an atmosphere of paranoia.

Then, in early 2015, Barack Obama declared Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to national security, citing government corruption and human rights abuses, marking a new phase of US policy toward the country. Under the Trump administration, US sanctions on Venezuela drastically increased. Venezuela became one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, and its ability to export oil or to trade was largely blocked.

Amid harsh sanctions, militarized policing, and government corruption, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela dramatically worsened. This year, an estimated 42% of Venezuelan children in Caracas neighborhoods were experiencing malnutrition, while political violence and hunger made Venezuela unlivable for millions.

When Venezuelan asylum seekers search for refuge, they often espouse US patriotism and idealize the freedom that the US can potentially provide. Yet their welcome has been far from warm, with many facing imprisonment within mainstream prison populations across the US, detention in privatized centers outside of official oversight, and the recent media spectacle of being shuttled around the country for the political benefit of conservatives.

Still, forcibly displaced Venezuelans continue to cross borders in order to find freedom, or simply survive.

Oneida and her husband arrived in Miami with two kids and two bags.

In Venezuela, their family had owned a small cellphone retail business. But when Oneida’s husband refused to sell his products at a fixed government rate, they started receiving threats. One time, on the way home, her husband was threatened at gunpoint.

With Oneida pregnant, the family tried to move to another city and escape their persecutors. But the threats continued. They had few other viable choices – they decided they had to leave Venezuela, with only their 10-year-old and six-month-old in tow.

“Literally, we left our whole family,” Oneida said. “We left everything.”

In 2015, Oneida, her husband, and their two children were able to come to the US legally with tourist visas – a pathway that has become far less possible for Venezuelans today, as the US embassy in Caracas has been shuttered and all consular services suspended since 2019.

The family got to Miami that October and applied for asylum. “Really, we didn’t have an option to go back,” Oneida said.

Even though they tried to do everything by the book, it still took more than two years for them to receive authorization to work in the US. While they waited, they did what they could to get by, selling their possessions back in Venezuela to pay the rent.

“We did, well, what all immigrants do,” Oneida remembered.

Their future here, however, remains tenuous because of the legal limbo they’ve endured for over seven years.

Oneida’s oldest son just aced a statewide test and has started receiving letters about his college prospects. But because he only has temporary protected status (TPS) – a short-term designation for people unable to return to their home countries because of conflict, natural disasters, or other disruptions, which offers no pathway to a green card or citizenship – his mom isn’t sure he’ll be able to attend university.

Oneida also has TPS, while her six-year-old daughter – who was born in the US – is an American citizen. For years now, Oneida, her husband, and their two oldest kids have been waiting in US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ extensive affirmative asylum backlog for a chance at a more stable future for their whole family, hoping for an interview to prove to an asylum officer that they qualify for refuge.

If they were granted asylum, their family would finally have a pathway to a green card – and eventually to citizenship.

“Asylum establishes a human right. That we have a right to life, family,” Oneida said. “As long as we don’t have asylum, we can’t do anything. Really, we feel abandoned.”

Yet even after encountering so much adversity, Oneida still feels her family belongs here. She dreams of becoming a US citizen, like her daughter.

“Always when I go out, when I drive, and I see the beautiful blue sky and see the American flag … I always tell God, when I am an American citizen, I will have a flag in my house,” she said. “To me, this seems so respectful, so proud to be American.”

illustration of person looking out window in city
‘As long as we don’t have asylum, we can’t do anything.’ Illustration: Emre Altındağ/The Guardian

Alejandro’s travels north started in the middle of the night in Caracas.

It was 2019, and fellow military officers had threatened him with death after he was branded as a political discontent. He left his apartment with only a backpack, forced to leave Venezuela over land by night to avoid being recognized as a member of the military.

After walking across a bridge into neighboring Colombia, he used most of his 10 years’ worth of savings from his military pay to buy a plane ticket to Mexico City. In Venezuela, average monthly incomes are currently less than $100, and Alejandro’s salary was the equivalent of $21 per month.

Even so, Alejandro was lucky to have the option of flying. The August 2021 cancellation by Mexico of most flights from Venezuela and the drastic tightening of entry restrictions means that Venezuelans often must instead cross the deadly Darien Gap in southern Panama and continue on land across all of Central America and Mexico.

Even though Alejandro says he had to save a drowning elderly man and child while swimming across the Rio Grande River on the US-Mexico border, his crossing to the US was far less horrific than what other Venezuelans have experienced.

Once he stepped on to US soil, he promptly surrendered to the border patrol in order to enter the asylum process. Officials transferred Alejandro to the troubled Val Verde correctional facility, a privately run prison with a history of prisoner abuse and detainee deaths in Del Rio, Texas. He stayed there for a month before being transferred to the South Texas Ice facility outside San Antonio. From there, he went to a prison in Memphis, Tennessee.

“You don’t need to know a psychologist to know that the person who designed the system [of transporting detainees from one facility to another] had a macabre mind,” Alejandro said. “They handcuff your hands, feet, and waist. Then they give you a sandwich and a water you can’t drink because you are handcuffed. You are handcuffed here in front of one bottle of water and a sandwich you can’t eat.”

From Memphis, Alejandro was transferred yet again to a correctional facility in Mississippi, a privately run maximum-security prison.

“Most [asylum seekers] think they will continue their process living in a refugee center with their family,” Alejandro says. “However, if you have the same process [as I did], you will have to be in a two-by-two meter cell confined as long as the officer decides. The detention for immigrants is the same as if you have killed someone.”

From Mississippi, Alejandro was transferred to his last privately run prison – the River correctional facility in rural Louisiana, an Ice detention center. He remembers it as the darkest part of this nightmare.

The yard was the sole outdoor area where the more than a hundred asylum seekers in Alejandro’s 10-by-15 meter cell were allowed an hour of recess. Alejandro would use his one allowed collect phone call to talk to Oneida, and he would often blame his bodily injuries on recreation in the yard, when when she knew very well that he was trying to shield her from the harsher reality of the fights and abuse that left him wounded.

So when Alejandro called her one afternoon, she asked him worriedly, “‘How did it go in the yard?’”

Alejandro said he had been lying on the ground when he saw a group of airplanes; there was an aviation academy close to the prison. The contrast between the freedom embodied by those planes and his dehumanizing detention almost broke him. Flying planes was when Alejandro felt most free, in the air force in Venezuela, his dream had been to leave the military and become a commercial pilot.

The only way to get a response from management about guards’ abuses or the poor diet at the prison was for all asylum seekers to go on hunger strike. Alejandro watched other detainees break under these conditions and sign “voluntary” deportation orders, forfeiting any chance at a hearing for their cases. Despite these difficult conditions, over the months of detention at River, Alejandro used the phone calls with his sister to prepare himself for his immigration trial.

Oneida had been studying at the Immigration Institute of Florida to learn how to advocate for herself during her own asylum case. But with Alejandro behind bars, she had started using the computer in her son’s room to research what she needed to do to save her brother’s life.

She did not know which outcome she feared more: Alejandro staying locked up or being deported. The more she learned about his circumstances, the more she worried about what he was going through. She knew her calls with him were being recorded. So, cautiously, she tried to guide him through his application process.

“I did what I could from outside,” she said. “He did what he could from inside.”

Alejandro sought extra time in the detention center’s library, modeling good behavior and helping in any way he could so the staff would allow him to stay and study. The library had a coveted resource inside the otherwise remote, disconnected facility: computers. And even when Alejandro couldn’t get permission to use the technology, he could at least access a copy of the US constitution or other reading materials that would help him argue his defense.

Oneida sent Alejandro evidence to support his case, which he would carefully index, memorizing the key takeaways of each document. Hours felt like days as the clock ticked toward his hearing.

When the court date finally arrived, Alejandro spent five and a half hours videoconferencing with a judge and a government attorney arguing for his removal from the US. The odds were stacked against him: because of a Trump-era policy that barred those who had transited through another country en route to the US from winning asylum, he only qualified for a protection called “withholding of removal”, which was even harder to get.

During the hearing, he was handcuffed and watched by an official, unable to reference any of his documents as he defended himself. He could only answer “yes” or “no” to questions, with no room for nuance, and he understood the government attorney was trying to trick him into making a mistake so she could discredit his testimony.

Luckily, he knew his story – and all of the evidence supporting it – by heart.

“Do you think you would forget something that forced you to leave your whole life behind and change everything?” Alejandro said.

Hours into the hearing, the government attorney was still threatening to appeal if the judge granted Alejandro’s petition. An appeal would mean even more time in detention, a prospect that weighed heavily on him as he spoke to Oneida during his lunch break.

But when the hearing reconvened, the attorney finally acquiesced – her supervisors had told her to let it go. Later, she told Alejandro that she wasn’t anti-Venezuelan. She just couldn’t explain to her boss that an undocumented immigrant had bested her in court.

As the judge granted Alejandro’s application, he similarly lamented that it was the first time in his 22-year career when he had felt compelled to approve a “withholding of removal” request.

“He said, ‘I am signing it against my will, but I must sign it,’” Alejandro remembered. ‘“Because if someone murders you in Venezuela, I could be held responsible later.’”

Suddenly, against all odds, Alejandro was free.

“I was six months detained and only saw one person other than me winning their case,” he said. “Nobody else won.”

When Alejandro finally got to his sister’s in Florida, he tried to rest on his brother-in-law’s couch. But after six months on detention mattresses, his body couldn’t accept the softness of a forgiving piece of furniture. He tried the bed upstairs, too, with no success.

“I lay in the bed, but I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I had to lay on the floor because I continued feeling the silence of the house and the mattress as strange.”

“The lights were off,” his sister interjected.

“Yes, the lights were off,” Alejandro remembered. “I had to turn on the lights and lay on the ground.”

Now, a photo of the plastic ring Alejandro made for Oneida from behind bars is one of the only relics left of his detention experience. But the harm and trauma it represents endures.

“I am not an emotional person,” Alejandro said. “But when I see the ring, I remember how I made it. The ring has a meaning because the experience marks you. It’s like a trace of what is left.”

Today, Alejandro works flexible hours for his sister’s car rental business and shares a two-bedroom apartment with three other Venezuelans from his hometown. He is constantly hosting those fleeing. The memory of his detention inspires him to help others and to value the life that he has now.

After Oneida’s crash course in the ever-shifting web of US immigration policies, she has also devoted herself to helping other immigrants. No longer working from the computer in her son’s bedroom, Oneida has an office for her immigration-assistance business. She has helped hundreds fight their cases.

Even though neither Oneida nor Alejandro can return to Venezuela to visit their family, the money they send back keeps their loved ones alive. “Thank God, I can help my family,” Alejandro said. “The situation in Venezuela is critical. Venezuelan people around the world continue helping their family. If not, a lot of people would starve.”

Thanks to a change in policy, Alejandro has been able to adjust his status from withholding of removal to asylum, which means he now has a pathway to citizenship and a possible future in the US. He recently obtained a pilot’s license, and he is working toward logging the flight hours necessary for a commercial license. When his best friend from childhood visited him in Miami, he took her flying over the city in a Cessna plane.

Alejandro has come a long way from the detention yard, wincing up at the beautiful blue sky with both pain and hope.

“I think I got over the past,” he said. “I am here, I am free. I do what I love.”

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