Months before buses carrying immigrants arrived from Texas, Venezuelans in Chicago saw signs of humanitarian crisis
Rafael Briceño Colmenares, who arrived in the Chicago area earlier this year, is among thousands that have fled their South American homeland in order to help feed their families.
When Rafael Briceño Colmenares arrived in Chicago on a frigid night last January, all he had was a phone number for 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 point, he had two homes for his three children and wife.
But by 2018, he had exhausted his savings because of inflation and saw food scarcity 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 provide food for my children tomorrow,” he said in an interview conducted in Spanish about the long journey that eventually led him to Chicago. “... Many people have died because they didn’t have anything to eat.”
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In recent weeks, the state says more than 900 immigrants — the majority from Venezuela — have been sent to Chicago via buses chartered by Texas authorities.
They found themselves caught in the middle of a political battle between Republicans in Southern states and Democratic leaders elsewhere. But thousands of Venezuelans like Colmenares already were fleeing their homeland years before the buses started to arrive in Chicago.
Ana Gil Garcia, a longtime leader of Chicago’s Venezuelan community, calls the current situation that has led so many people to leave South America for the U.S. a “crisis” that no one here planned for.
“I’ve been receiving phone calls since January, in the middle of the night, and that was when I realized that something was really going on,” said Garcia. One of those calls was from Colmenares.
Last December, the number of Venezuelan encounters at the southern U.S. border reached about 24,800, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In comparison, in December 2020 there had been 693 Venezuelans encountered by border agents.
In August the number climbed to more than 25,300.
In recent years, the economic situation in Venezuela has become more dire, launching the latest wave of people fleeing the country, said Lourdes Gouveia, a professor emeritus of Latino/Latin American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Around 2015, oil prices plummeted after the country’s leader, Hugo Chavez, died, which led to hard economic times in the large oil exporting nation and increased political oppression and violence, Gouveia said.
“This is a moment where, especially because of the economic collapse, there’s majority scarcity in medicines, food, essentials,” she said. “A middle class essentially disappears at this time, and Venezuelans overwhelmingly join the ranks of the poor.”
More Venezuelans struggled to obtain a visa to enter the U.S. because of poor relations between the two nations, she said.
In addition, stricter policies during Donald Trump’s presidency and the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to come directly to the U.S., 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 reported it, he could put his family at risk.
He and his neighbors were often coerced into attending political rallies by threats their utilities would be shut off or they wouldn’t receive a monthly food ration from the government.
“There’s a dictatorship that they say is a democracy, but there can’t be a democracy when there are injustices, and where the people don’t have a voice or don’t have any kind of benefit,” he said in Spanish.
He lived in Colombia and Costa Rica before going 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.
Journey to the States
A contact in Connecticut told Colmenares that he could stay with him.
As he made the three-month journey to the U.S. by plane, bus and even — at times — on foot, he encountered people who wanted to help immigrants, but others, including some police officers, that appeared to want to extort money from them.
When he finally reached the Texas border late last year, he turned himself into immigration agents. After officials released him to a shelter, he found out the person in Connecticut could no longer host him.
An organization in Texas paid for his plane ticket to Chicago, where he got in touch with Garcia. Garcia said some recently arrived Venezuelans have nowhere to go but had heard about job opportunities in Chicago.
Sylvia Acosta Chávez, from the Spanish Community Center in Joliet, said unlike some other immigrant groups, many of the recently arrived Venezuelans have no family here.
“They’re really completely lost and disconnected from everything,” said Chávez.
A hospitality job and money to send home
For six months, Colmenares lived with Chávez because he had difficulties finding a shelter. He got a job in the hospitality industry, and in July he moved in with a co-worker.
Working two shifts a day, he sends $1,000 a month to his children and wife in Venezuela and sends another $400 every month to his parents there, plus what he can to his siblings.
He wants to apply for asylum to remain in the States, but he can’t afford an attorney. In Texas, he was given a piece of paper indicating he would be later assigned a date to appear in immigration court for deportation proceedings.
Frank Sandoval, a paralegal with the Spanish Community Center who fled Venezuela years earlier, said the new wave of Venezuelans will face legal challenges. Some have weak asylum cases, and none are eligible for temporary protected status if they weren’t in the U.S. by March 2021.
Things will get even worse within two to three years, Sandoval said.
“People are going to be mass deported,” he said.
Colmenares recently started English classes at a community college. There’s a part of him that is optimistic that the 2024 presidential elections in Venezuela will bring change, but he also knows that the conditions could worsen. He hasn’t seen his family in four years.
“We always miss a hug from the ones we love the most,” said Colmenares. “A hug fills our soul, motivates us to continue, 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.