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First person story: ‘Even though it has been hard … we are grateful for the opportunities this country gives us’

The Hernandez family, Venezuelan migrants seeking asylum in the United States and who previously requested an appointment on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) CBP One application, wait to attend their appointment at the Paso del Norte International bridge, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 3, 2023. (OSV News photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

By Josefa Rodríguez for OSV News

I am Venezuelan, married, and a mother of 2 children. For political reasons, I was forced to seek asylum in the United States to protect my life and that of my family, especially my youngest son, who was 9 at the time.

I never imagined that I would have to leave my beautiful and beloved country and my region — an area rich in minerals and many mining companies, with extensive vegetation and beautiful waterfalls. My workplace operated a large hydroelectric power plant. We had our own house, we could provide our food, private education for our children, and, most importantly, our extended families could watch our children grow up.

Both my husband and I worked for public companies run by the government of Nicolás Maduro. At first, this did not affect our jobs. Other sectors had been affected by the government’s bad policies, and the country’s economic situation had severely deteriorated. But we did not imagine that these policies would eventually lead us to the gates of horror and fear, forcing us to flee the country. It was a difficult, complex, and desperate decision to leave without knowing if we would ever see our relatives again.

Beginning in 2017, we were forced, because of our jobs, to participate in pro-government rallies under threat of dismissal or suspension of our salaries. We refused.

The government, through its armed groups, called “colectivos,” enforced its threats with intimidation and persecution, both toward our children and to us. In January 2019, my husband was unjustly fired for not wanting to attend the marches and for denouncing cases of blatant corruption. He was threatened with death and constantly harassed.

In March 2019, power failures left the country without electricity for 15 days. The workers of my plant were persecuted and harassed by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) authorities. They blamed us for these blackouts since the government publicly declared the cause was sabotage by the workers, directed by the United States. We, the workers, knew the blackouts resulted from lack of maintenance, lack of fuel, bad decisions, lack of supplies and spare parts and corruption.

Under these circumstances, my husband and my oldest son (who had American visas) left the country in 2019. My youngest son and I stayed in Venezuela because his passport had expired. That was a time of terror for us; we were harrassed by the government’s armed “colectivo” groups, who were looking for my husband. These events affected my son psychologically.

We managed to leave Venezuela in December of 2019, on a flight from Caracas to Monterrey, Mexico, where I had an appointment to apply for an American visa. It was denied. Since I could not return to my country, I was forced to go to the border. My greatest desire was to ensure my son’s safety and be reunited with my husband and older son.

When I arrived at the border on December 17, 2019, it was closed. All asylum seekers were told to return to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program imposed by the Trump administration. When I showed up at the immigration gate at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Sonora, I was processed, and after five days in detention, I was released and returned to Mexico with my son.

I despaired because I did not know what to do. I could not return to my country. I was afraid — all alone with my young son. The fear for our lives increased 1000% as that area was ruled by Mexican cartels, with a high rate of kidnappings. While waiting for my first hearing in Mexico (scheduled for April 2020), I had to rent an apartment, as the shelters were closed. The apartment was broken into. My son had nightmares and woke up in the wee hours of the morning with piercing screams.

Everything was complicated by the pandemic, and the implementation of Title 42 health measures for the United States. Hearings were rescheduled. Uncertainty grew about how long I had to be separated from my husband and my other son.

I stayed at the border for a year, full of uncertainty. During this time, my husband was extorted into believing that I was being held hostage, which rattled him. My health was affected. The fear that something would happen to me, and that my son would be left alone in such a dangerous place, made me feel like I was being strangled.

Thanks to the support of the Kino Border Initiative in Sonora, we had food and experienced something like family warmth, especially for my son.

The international campaign #salvaelasilo (#saveasylum) gave us the courage to continue as we saw the support of human rights defenders on both sides of the border. We participated in marches, meetings, and activities that allowed us to be heard. Families of different nationalities were waiting for the border to open to ask for asylum, because it is an international right to have protection for our lives and the lives of our children.

Our hope was reignited when President Biden announced that he would eliminate the MPP program if he won the 2020 presidential election. And indeed, in February 2021, the MPP program ended, and the first families entered a process organized and led by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

My son and I finally entered the United States on April 27, 2021.

Once in the U.S., we had to forget our professions and adapt. I presented myself at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices as directed, got a driver’s license, and waited 180 days to apply for my work permit and Social Security number, which I received in June of 2022. Currently, my work includes doing maintenance in family homes, and I am also studying for certification as a professional coder. My children are doing very well academically. My oldest son is finishing high school and wants to study business in college. My youngest is in 7th grade and wants to study to become a chef. My husband is also working and has achieved certification in forklift driving.

I share this because, even though it has been hard to start from scratch, we are grateful for the opportunities this country gives us. We are moving forward little by little, and our children are safe. This motivates us to keep going.

The parole measures implemented by President Biden’s administration for Venezuelans, Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans mean that a person living in the U.S. with legal status can be a sponsor or offer financial support to bring people in need of asylum. This is not an easy measure, as not everyone who has migrated can assume that financial burden. In addition, people who need to leave their country mostly do not have the means to cover an airline ticket. On the other hand, the measure is still discriminatory since Venezuelans who are in other Latin American countries are not eligible for this measure.

Currently, many Latin American countries are being led by leftist governments, and I fear that, in time, they will possibly become autocratic governments like Venezuela and Cuba — forcing many people to feel the need to flee to another country, where governments are democratic and where human rights are respected.

As a family, we have experienced firsthand the pain of the migration process. We don’t want more families to endure what we experienced. We know what it feels like when all your plans vanish overnight. It hurts us that the same administration that ended MPP is once again sending people back to those borders where many migrants face death, kidnappings, and extortion. Returning them to their countries of origin is like sending them to die because, in those countries, there is no guarantee of survival when they know you oppose the government.

And when they know you tried to migrate, the punishments are much greater.

This testimony was shared through the Kino Border Initiative, an organization that seeks to foster bi-national solidarity on the issue of migration in the U.S.–Mexico border. Josefa’s real name is withheld for the protection of her family. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

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