When Jose Ramon Zambrano and his pregnant wife crossed the Rio Grande to apply for asylum in the U.S., they were looking for a fresh start far away from a certain arrest in his native Venezuela, where his mother is a prominent government opponent.
Instead, he spent six months locked up in Texas, separated from a newborn son.
“Crossing the border in search of protection isn’t a crime,” Zambrano said from a detention center near Houston. “We do it because we need to.”
Zambrano is one of hundreds of Venezuelans fleeing the socialist regime of Nicolás Maduro and showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border in larger numbers in recent months, only to encounter President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies.
But unlike even larger waves of migrants from Mexico and Central America, the Venezuelans at the border have put the Trump administration in a tight spot.
Most of them have been jailed for extended periods or sent back to Mexico to languish in dangerous border towns while awaiting their immigration cases in the U.S., despite proclamations from the Trump administration that it supports people escaping brutal conditions under Maduro.
While Trump has been leading the campaign to oust Maduro — praising opposition leader Juan Guaidó as a “very brave man who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans” as his guest at the State of the Union address — critics say he’s done little to shield Venezuelans from his immigration policies.
Specifically, he’s rejected calls by Democrats and even some Republican allies like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to grant humanitarian protections to those escaping political and economic turmoil.
“Venezuelans come to the US seeking security, and although many find it, others encounter a new nightmare and are met with detention,” said Julio Henriquez, a Boston-based immigration lawyer from Venezuela who handles asylum cases for his compatriots. “It’s a very different narrative than the one about Trump’s support for the victims of Maduro.”
Nationwide some 850 Venezuelans remain behind bars, held in detention centers as the Trump administration has no way of handing them over to the heavily-sanctioned socialist government of Maduro, which it no longer recognizes. More than 2,000 were returned across the border as part of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program.
The number of Venezuelans entering the U.S. is rising as part of a mass wave that has seen almost 5 million leave the oil rich-nation, the bulk to neighboring Latin American countries. Although many are fleeing economic chaos, not political persecution, the United Nations has urged countries to grant them refugee status.
In the past year, Venezuelans have made up 30 percent of all 82,807 asylum claims lodged by people who were not in deportation proceedings. Arrests of Venezuelans for entering the country illegally on the Mexican border spiked to 2,202 during the 2019 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 62 during the previous 12-month period, according to Customs and Border Protection. Venezuelans are also among the nationalities with the highest number of people who overstay their visas.
The issue has become a political hot potato for Guaidó as well.
Critics say Guaidó, whom Trump recognizes as Venezuela’s rightful leader, is covering for the U.S. president so as not to risk valuable political support in his sputtering, year-old campaign against Maduro. They point out that Guaidó didn’t publicly raise the issue in his recent week-long trip to the U.S.
“The job of a government is to take care of its citizens, not make political favors,” said Edinson Calderon, a LGBTQ immigrant activist in New York who fled Venezuela in 2015 after being tortured by security forces who brutally quashed anti-government protests.
Like most migrants, Calderon was at first an enthusiastic supporter of Guaidó, hoping the young lawmaker could pave the way for him to return home and be reunited with his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in five years.
But he’s since turned into a fierce critic, appearing on the talk show of Patricia Poleo, a journalist popular with hardliner exiles in Miami, to denounce what he considers Guaido’s neglect of detainees, some of whom have been held for 18 months.
Among the more than 208 detainees cases he’s documented is that of a 65-year-old pizza parlor owner who received death threats after feeding pro-government vigilantes. He’s also found five inmates who are HIV positive and complained of not receiving proper medical treatment.
Like Zambrano, all of them have deportation orders. But with all flights to Venezuela banned since May, they are unlikely to be removed any time soon. Meanwhile, they remain in jail, in a sort of legal limbo, suffering what they say is frequent verbal abuse by guards.
On Saturday, a group of some 50 exiles responding to a call by Poleo gathered at an arepa stand in the Miami suburb of Doral to write letters to Venezuelan prisoners. One by one, they pulled the names and federal inmate numbers of their compatriots out of a hat at random.
Guaido’s small team in Washington has argued it’s doing all it can to assist detainees and block their eventual deportation without interfering in what are sovereign U.S. migration proceedings. They claim that as a result of their involvement, the number of detainees has declined from a peak of 1,300 last year.
This month, Carlos Vecchio, who is recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela’s ambassador, began visiting detention centers around the country, hearing firsthand the dramatic tales of Venezuelan prisoners who had been forced to leave their homes.
“At the end of the day we’re all victims,” said Vecchio, who fled Venezuela himself to escape what were widely seen as made-up charges of inciting violence during 2014 anti-government protests. “All that we Venezuelans are suffering has a cause: the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro, which has forced millions of Venezuelans to leave their country.”
Still, the outlook for some sort of protection is bleak.
Despite having urged Americans to avoid travel to Venezuela, and frequent criticism of Maduro’s human rights record, the Trump administration deported 327 Venezuelans last year, according to ICE. With the flight ban in place, most are being carried out through third countries. Meanwhile, the length of detention for Venezuelans is growing longer, to an average 82 days from 56 in 2019.
Trump in 2019 also tried to end so-called temporary protected status past U.S. administrations have provided to 400,000 immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti fleeing catastrophic events like natural disasters.
Among those Vecchio met at a detention center near Houston was Zambrano.
His mother, Cioly Zambrano, a jurist, fled into exile after being appointed to the Supreme Court by the Guaidó-controlled legislature.
On April 30, 2018, police raided a hotel the family owns. In a split second, Zamrano bolted for the third floor and flung himself from the roof as a gunshot was fired. He survived the fall, landing on a neighbor’s zinc roof, and that night was shuttled in the trunk of a car across the border into Colombia.
With his wife and a child on the way, he entered the U.S. illegally in August 2009 and applied for asylum. But when he appeared before a judge, without an attorney and struggling to understand the proceedings in English, his request was rejected.
He was detained for six months and was granted parole this week, allowing him to quickly travel to Orlando to meet his 4-month-old son, Matthew, for the first time.
Until his release Wednesday, his mother journeyed to see him every few weeks for a single hour. She credits Vecchio’s pressure to securing her son’s release, but his future remains uncertain because his deportation order hasn’t been lifted.
“We Venezuelans have a moral debt to President Trump and all American families,” said Cioly Zambrano, holding back tears as she recalls the long nights worrying about her son. “But we also need their help.”