Feb 11, 2024 - Politics & Policy

One Venezuelan's risky search for asylum in the U.S.

Migrants wait in lines in Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Migrants hoping to enter the U.S. at El Paso, Texas, are grouped together while waiting to be processed in Ciudad Juarez last September. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

EL PASO, Texas — Julio Cesar, 55, nearly drowned while crossing a river in the Daríen Gap jungle in 2022 after fleeing Venezuela because of political persecution and a dire economic situation.

Why it matters: Julio Cesar's story is typical of the desperate migrants who risk their lives to try to attain asylum in the U.S., the vast majority fleeing violence, persecution, poverty, a lack of access to medical care and more.

  • Migrating to the U.S. through the Americas is a perilous and sometimes deadly endeavor, yet people from around the world — 2.5 million last year — are traveling through several countries to try to enter the U.S. along its border with Mexico.
  • Migrants from South America, Russia, India, China and elsewhere — many on foot — traversed the dangerous Daríen Gap, a once impassable jungle between South and Central America where a record half a million people passed through last year.

What they're saying: Crystal Sandoval, director of cross-border strategies for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, says many of her clients have left their countries because of food and medicine scarcity and violence aimed at women and LGBTQ+ people.

  • "There's no way to make a living. So either they die there or they migrate or die while they are migrating, but at least they tried," Sandoval says.
  • Many of her clients report being extorted, robbed or raped along the way.

Zoom in: Julio Cesar, who asked that his last name not be used because he feared jeopardizing his asylum application, is among millions of Venezuelans who have fled that country in recent years.

  • He said he was targeted by Venezuela's government for campaigning for a member of a small political party not affiliated with the ruling regime.
  • Julio Cesar left his hometown on Sept. 16, 2022. He said he was robbed at gunpoint, extorted in almost every country he passed through, and injured his feet so badly while crossing the Daríen that he needed medical care.
  • He arrived in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, a month later.

Julio Cesar unsuccessfully tried several times to cross into the U.S., but ended up in Juárez for weeks, nearly losing hope, he said.

  • But in January 2023, the Biden administration launched a parole program that allows asylum-seekers from certain countries to make an appointment using an app before crossing the border.
  • Julio Cesar applied and got an appointment a couple of days later.
  • "It's incredible when you get that email," he says, breaking into tears. "You think about this moment from the minute you leave home."
  • He's now living in El Paso and has a job doing maintenance for a business while he awaits a decision on his applications for asylum and temporary protected status to prevent him from being deported.
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