By Alex Maroño Porto
José Arturo, 44, was a supervisor at a chicken slaughterhouse in Venezuela until hyperinflation and political chaos sent his country into a tailspin, pushing Arturo and millions of others to migrate in order to survive. “You can’t live right now in Venezuela,” Arturo said during an interview at the Park West Hotel, a former pandemic-era women’s homeless shelter on Central Park West at 106th Street, where he has been living for almost two months.
Arturo says the exodus from his homeland began with a journey of more than 2,500 miles, much of it made on foot, from the Venezuelan city of Maracay to Juarez, Mexico, where he crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. “It was horrible,” he recalled. “We came all the way through the jungle, and it took us 69 days to arrive here.”
As soon as Arturo set foot in Texas, he says, U.S. immigration officials arrested him and held him for four days in a detention center. Then, without much explanation (“They were saying there would be work in New York,” he said), he was put on a bus with other Venezuelan asylum seekers and given a snack and some food. Two days later, the group pulled into New York’s Port Authority bus station.
Buses like the one that brought Arturo to New York have been arriving regularly since April, when Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas would send migrants detained there to Washington, D.C. and New York City as part of a political effort to demand more border security by the federal government. The 17,000 migrants who have arrived here since spring prompted Mayor Eric Adams to declare a state of emergency this month as the city scrambles to shelter them. Despite the emergency declaration here, Abbott, a Republican, announced that the busing would continue in order “to relieve our overwhelmed border towns.”
The asylum seekers bused to New York are just a small part of the “largest [exodus] that Latin America has seen in modern times,” according to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Millions of Venezuelans have fled their homeland’s authoritarian regime, where almost 77% of the population lives in extreme poverty. As the Interagency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants reported, the overwhelming majority of them are scattered in Colombia and Peru, while more than 153,000 crossed the border to the U.S. between October 2021 and August 2022, according to data from Customs and Border Protection.
To grapple with the influx here, the city is adopting temporary measures such as building a massive tent center on Randall’s Island, a project deemed “unacceptable” by Make the Road New York, an immigration-rights organization. Despite the challenging housing situation, several of the migrants at the Upper West Side’s Park West Hotel said they were grateful to be in New York.
“There is no shelter in Texas, there is no help like there is here,” Arturo told the Rag. He was assigned to the Park West by the city’s Department of Homeless Services. The hotel’s 94 rooms are almost all occupied by migrants from Latin American countries, including Venezuela and Nicaragua, according to the current residents. Some were bussed here from Texas, under Gov. Abbott’s policy, while others made their way here on their own or with aid from shelters or faith-based organizations in Texas. Regardless of how they made the journey here, the Venezuelans said they came to New York because they were told there were jobs here; less clear to them were the administrative hurdles that prevent asylum seekers from working legally for at least several months after they enter the U.S.
Processing the asylum claims of the Venezuelans will be done by courts in New York, but the legal proceedings could take years, according to Hasan Shafiqullah, the attorney in charge of the Legal Aid Society’s immigration law unit. “Most judges are backlogged for about three years,” he said in a phone interview.
And even when their cases reach the hearing stage, the asylum seekers face difficult odds in winning the approval they need in order to stay in the United States. According to one study of over 200,000 asylum claims made between 2016 and 2021, 60% of immigration judges have an asylum denial rate of 70% or higher, while more than 20% have an asylum denial rate of over 90%. During the process asylum seekers can’t visit their home country, but they are allowed to work here after they receive a Social Security number and a work permit – a process that takes at least 180 days from the time an asylum claim is first made, according to Shafiquilah.
As they wait, some of the Venezuelans acknowledge they feel lonely and isolated. Estefani Mijares, 22, left the Venezuelan capital of Caracas on August 1 with her husband and three-year-old son. They paid a coyote (smuggler) to help them on a perilous eight-day journey through Panama, a route that has claimed dozens of migrant lives. Along the way, they lost their food and were separated for a time from their coyote guide.
“I was listening to my child cry and, in my mind, I only thought that at some point I was going to die here with my son,” said Mijares. Eventually the family arrived in Texas and spent a few days in a shelter, which bought plane tickets for the family to fly to New Jersey. Once there, a friend told Mijares the family was more likely to find shelter in New York; they came to the city and eventually found housing at Park West.
Because she can’t speak English, Mijares barely leaves the hotel room and spends many hours feeling isolated. “I would like to understand the language to socialize more. I am embarrassed to leave my room, to go into a shopping mall,” she said. “It’s a depression that those of us who are here without a family suffer.” But, “at least we have a roof, and it’s comfortable and beautiful,” she said.
At the Park West, built as a transitional residence for tourists, the hotel rooms only have a microwave oven, so the migrants can’t cook their own meals. The residents say the hotel serves them cold meals, but some neighbors regularly bring them hot food.
“The neighbors have received me very well,” said Johan, 38, who did not want to give his last name. “They have helped us with food and clothing.”
Johan said he, his wife and two children had wanted to stay in Texas, after their “dangerous” trek there from Venezuela. But, “I was told there was no shelter in Texas.” So, like Arturo, Johan and his family spent two days on a bus, with a few sandwiches to sustain them, before finally landing at the Park West.
Around 4 p.m. on a late October Sunday, Sofía Olivar and a few friends and relatives arrived at the benches in front of the Park West, bearing bags of hot, homemade meals – meat, beans, rice and pasta. Olivar immigrated to Harlem from the Dominican Republic 35 years ago. She heard about the Park West Venezuelans through her church, Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, and she sees her Sunday visits to the Park West as giving back.
“We started collecting clothes, we met them and then we started coming.” Olivar said. Food for the meals comes from family contributions. “We do this from the heart,” she said as a few migrants gathered for the meals. “The only point is to help.”
Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced a policy shift designed to stop Venezuelans from crossing the southern U.S. border illegally. Those who do so are now turned back to Mexico; according to the Department of Homeland Security, anyone seeking to flee Venezuela’s “economic and humanitarian crisis” must apply for entry to the U.S. from Caracas. They must show proof that someone in the U.S. is willing to give them economic support, and no more than 24,000 Venezuelans will be granted U.S. entry under the policy.
The policy does not apply to Veneuzuelans like Suember Yamarte, 41, from Maracay, who is already here and living at the Park West with his 18-year-old son. The pair arrived here after a two-month trek this summer from Venezuela to Texas, followed by a bus trip to New York. But now, even if Yamarte and his son are granted asylum to remain in the U.S., reuniting with the rest of the family – Yamarte’s wife and three more children – could be blocked by the Biden policy’s new rules on Venezuelan migration.
“My intention was to bring my children here so they could have a better life,” said Yamarte, who worked as a watchmaker in Venezuela. If he receives asylum but the rest of the family is unable to join him, “I will make money and set up a business in Venezuela,” Yamarte said. “Family is family. You can’t lose your family just to be here.”
Antony Castrillón, 24, another Park West Hotel resident who arrived with his wife and five-year-old son two months ago, said deportation is the main fear for Venezuelan immigrants right now. “We don’t know what could happen to us,” said Castrillón. “Maybe they could even take us out of the country.”
Castrillón, who used to work as a lathe operator, spent a month and a half with his family trying to reach the United States. They were detained in Texas for six days, after which a faith-based group helped them get plane tickets to New York. But like Arturo and others at the Park West Hotel, Castrillón is still waiting for a work permit and trying to make ends meet. “I don’t have papers at the moment, and it’s difficult to find a job,” he said.
Castrillón’s son is enrolled in school while he waits for work permission. He says he misses his culture, his people and even the tropical Venezuelan weather. But New York City, “the capital of the world,” he says, is slowly becoming his home.
“I know that I’ll have a better quality of life here,” Castrillón said. “By working hard, I will achieve what I have always longed for.”