An arduous journey from Venezuela

By: 
Trina Dennis Brittain with the Rocket Miner, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Yenderson Garcia Fragoza, left, and Nazareth Fraiberlys Gonzalez, right, fled from Venezuela with their two children for a better life in the United States. They have resettled in Rock Springs to avoid the ongoing violence, conflict and persecution in Venezuela. Photo by Trina Dennis Brittain, Rocket Miner. 

Asylum seekers find peace in Wyoming town

 

ROCK SPRINGS — A family from Caracas, Venezuela, risked their lives for tranquility and freedom in the United States. No matter how many obstacles were in their path, giving up was not an option.

 

Violence, conflict and persecution, as well as shortages in food, medicine and essential services have forced millions of Venezuelans to seek refuge in neighboring countries and beyond, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

 

More than 7.3 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2014. As of February 2023, this is the largest exodus in Latin America’s recent history and one of the largest displacement crises in the world.

 

About 2,000 people are still leaving Venezuela daily.

 

After about 1,040 miles, the most frightening obstacle migrants face on the way to the U.S. border is the Darien Gap.

 

The Darien Gap is a 70-mile stretch of thick jungle that connects Panama and Columbia. There are no roads, the water is dirty and migrants must tackle brutal terrains. As they walk on trails, they risk getting robbed, raped, kidnapped and getting attacked by wildlife, even deadly insects.

 

Among the growing number of people fleeing from Venezuela were Yenderson Garcia Fragoza, 23, and Nazareth Fraiberlys Gonzalez, 26. Not only were they on high alert for themselves, but they had to protect their children, Yenderson Jr., 4, and Melany, 2, from harm, too.

 

“People ask ‘Why would you put your children through that?’ ‘We wouldn’t put our kids through that.’ We had no choice,” said Nazareth. “They don’t understand that by coming here, we are saving their lives. We decided to take our chances and try to enter the United States.”

 

Since fleeing was already difficult, they had to leave their 6-year-old daughter, Marlen, with a grandparent. They are looking forward to the day when all of them could be reunited, but if they returned to Venezuela now, they could risk imprisonment.

 

“A police officer crossed the border. He got deported, and now he’s serving 40 years in prison,” Nazareth revealed.

 

According to the couple, when they were living in Venezuela, there was just “no way to get ahead.”

 

“There is no security, and the government isn’t helping,” Nazareth said, mentioning that people get a career in law enforcement to take advantage of citizens. “They will go into your home, take anything they want, and they will make fake accusations about you.”

 

They said that “having milk in the house is a luxury.” 

 

They don’t have much food because they made 144.39 a month in Venezuelan Bolivar Soberano, which is only $4 a month in U.S. dollars. The prices of everything keep going up, too, they mentioned.

 

“We’re not going back until that government is gone,” Nazareth expressed. “It is very corrupt; the government sent a bunch of goons to rob a bank and tried to pin it on innocent citizens. We have no trust in the system.”

 

In terms of education, the couple explained that the government charges people $100 for their kids to attend school; typically, families in Caracas only make $8 a month in U.S. dollars.

 

The one-week arduous journey on foot through the Darien Gap is something the family does not wish to go through again.

 

“It may have even been 10 or 11 days,” Nazareth recalled. “We thought it was never going to end.”

 

According to a Dec. 22, 2023, Time Magazine news article, from January to June of 2023, more than 200,000 people crossed the Darien Gap due to the escalating humanitarian crisis; more than 60 migrants died in the attempt.

 

The couple pointed out that they were surprised to see migrants from other countries besides Venezuela: Haiti, Ecuador, the Middle East and Asia.

 

The challenges continued after stumbling out of the Darien Gap; the asylum-seekers had stayed at an indigenous outpost until it was time to keep heading North. They explained that there were so many migrants at the camp that several groups were escorted out of the camp at different times, even at 3 a.m.

 

They said that just as they had started to feel safe, something was putting them at risk.

 

At one point, Yenderson mentioned, the family had no food and water for 30 hours and their lives were constantly threatened by the cartel.

 

The couple was getting closer to the U.S. border, but their physical endurance was tested for one last time. They found themselves swimming in the neck-high waters of the Rio Grande River. A woman in their group drowned on the way because of the unexpectedly fierce currents. Nazareth was nearly swept away, as well.

 

“If it wasn’t for the people around me, I would have died; the women up front and the men behind me in the water saved me and my baby,” Nazareth expressed. “The women grabbed my baby while the men grabbed me and helped me get my balance back.”

 

She said the woman who drowned had a child. Strangers took responsibility for the child who was about 3 years old.

 

They arrived at the Piedras Negras border crossing, which is often used by Mexicans heading North to towns like Uvalde and San Antonio.

 

Once on U.S. soil, the family of four waited to turn themselves in to U.S. Immigration and Customs Department for processing.

 

Border Patrol held them for a few days. During that time, they didn’t know if they were going to be allowed to move Northward or if they had to go back.

 

The couple described the refugee camp as “very crowded;” at least 25 individuals were packed in large rooms with cold, hard floors. They were given an emergency silver mylar thermal compact waterproof blanket. To eat, they were given an apple, a hash brown patty, juice, milk, water and a burrito.

 

It had taken them three months to arrive at the Mexican border. They began fleeing on Aug. 27, 2023.

 


 

Yenderson, Nazareth and their children are residing with a local family in Rock Springs, where “there isn’t a lot of noise.”

 

“The biggest difference between here and Venezuela is how quiet it is here,” Yenderson said as his wife chuckled and nodded in agreement. “We did not expect it to be so quiet here. We love it. We feel safe here. There is no one using and selling drugs behind the house, and no one is smashing through the house without your permission.”

 

Rosslyn Read is the founder and Legal Director of Wyoming Immigration Advocacy Project. WIAP, the only legal aid program for immigrants in Wyoming, provides accessible legal advice and aid for the immigrant community. 

 

According to Read, the total number of pending asylum cases in Colorado, which is about 28% of them — nearly 4,000 cases — involve Venezuelans. She said she doesn’t have data that further breaks down how many of those Venezuelans are now residing in Wyoming yet.

 

“My guess would be it’s a fairly small proportion of that total,” said Read. “Asylum seekers who present themselves to immigration officials at the border or port of entry are generally released into the U.S. with a pending court case, and all Wyoming residents’ cases are heard at the immigration court in Colorado.”

 

She confirmed that Wyoming is still the only state in the U.S. without a refugee resettlement program.

 

“I think the reasons Wyoming remains opposed to formally accepting refugees range from a belief that we lack the infrastructure to support refugees to fear and distrust of people perceived as ‘outsiders,’” she said, noting that legislation creating a resettlement program was proposed back in 2016, but it proved controversial and died in the Senate after passing the House. 

 

“A bill floated last year faced a similar fate,” she said. “There’s just no political will to move this kind of legislation forward in Wyoming and, given the increasingly conservative direction our state’s politics seem to be headed, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

 

She added, “I do want to clarify that while folks who arrive at the border seeking asylum in the U.S. are very much within their legal rights to do so, they don’t qualify for refugee resettlement. Resettlement is a process that only applies to people who have sought protection from persecution while they’re still abroad and have been deemed to meet the legal definition of refugee, meaning they have been persecuted, or fear future persecution, on account of their religion, nationality, political opinion, race, or membership in a particular social group.”

 

She went on to say that refugees referred to the U.S. for resettlement are subject to extensive vetting and security checks by both international and domestic agencies before they are permitted to enter the U.S. 

 

Once approved for resettlement, the U.S. Department of State works with nine refugee resettlement agencies around the country to determine which state they will be resettled in. The state that agrees to accept them coordinates with community partners to provide the resettled refugees with food and financial assistance upon arrival and works with the family to help them adjust and achieve self-sufficiency as quickly as possible.

 

She explained that in the absence of an official resettlement program in Wyoming, churches and private citizens have banded together and begun offering informal resettlement services to refugee families, such as helping them find employment, secure housing, and get kids enrolled in school. 

 

The federal government actually created a “Welcome Corps” refugee sponsorship program in late 2022 to encourage more of this community- based support for refugees.

 

“Although I don’t foresee our state’s official position on a refugee resettlement program shifting, I do think programs like this provide a viable mechanism to welcome at least a few refugees into Wyoming.”

 

To keep the peace, the Rock Springs couple who is assisting them will remain anonymous.

 

Read pointed out that many immigrants thrive in the U.S. and are welcomed into their new communities.

 

She shared that Wyoming has an extremely low unemployment rate, which means employers are often pretty desperate for employees and rely on immigrant labor to fill some of those vacant positions. Once the family has been issued work permits, which, due to legal restrictions, will take at least six months from the time they apply for asylum, they are likely to find be able to work and support themselves here.

 

She said, “I hope they can stick around, whether it’s their economic contributions or the addition of cultural diversity, immigrants really do enrich our lives in Wyoming.

 

“In my opinion, everyone deserves to feel safe and secure and live free from persecution, regardless of where they were born.”

 

Yenderson has expertise in construction and Nazareth is a manicurist. She wants to own her own salon.

 

They pointed out that if they hadn’t left Venezuela, Yenderson would have been forced to join a gang or die.

 

“We don’t want that for our children,” Nazareth said. “We want our children to be educated, happy and be at peace.”

 

Translated by Rosa Reyna-Pugh

 

This story was published on February 3, 2024. 

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