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The U.S. admitted thousands of Venezuelan migrants. Many are now stuck in legal limbo

Venezuelan migrants are among those lining up to receive clothing, food and haircuts at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Venezuelan migrants are among those lining up to receive clothing, food and haircuts at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.

Updated October 23, 2022 at 10:54 AM ET

José Albornoz has only been in the U.S. for a few weeks, but things have been happening fast.

He's already traveled across the country twice, landing in Montana, where a friend got him a job in construction. And he's learned a few things about the immigration system along the way.

"I'm undocumented," he says in Spanish, "but I'm not illegal."

The 40-year-old Venezuelan crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in September near Eagle Pass, Texas on foot and with few possessions: His passport, a cellphone and a change of clothes. He turned himself in to the United States Border Patrol, and was released into the U.S. a few days later.

Albornoz doesn't have a work permit. But he does have permission to be in the U.S. temporarily, which protects him from deportation.

Migrants who've just been released by immigration authorities prepare to continue their journeys at Mission: Border Hope in Eagle Pass, Texas in September.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Migrants who've just been released by immigration authorities prepare to continue their journeys at Mission: Border Hope in Eagle Pass, Texas in September.

This immigration purgatory – legally present, but unable to work lawfully – is where many Venezuelan migrants now find themselves. Hundreds of thousands have been released into the U.S. with a notice to appear in immigration court, or instructions to check in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they get to their destinations.

But the next steps are not so clear.

Migrants in New York are "desperate" to work

"They're not getting the things that they need, the information that they need," says Jay Alfaro, manager of social services and partnerships at the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York. "They don't know their rights, you know, they don't even know how to get around the city."

Jay Alfaro, manager of social services and partnerships at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan, stands for a portrait earlier this month.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
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José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Jay Alfaro, manager of social services and partnerships at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan, stands for a portrait earlier this month.
Jay Alfaro (center) helps migrants at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
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José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Jay Alfaro (center) helps migrants at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.

The church runs a soup kitchen a few blocks away from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The line outside the church is already long at 10 a.m. on a sunny yet chilly October day. Since August, volunteers and church staff have been serving hundreds of Venezuelan migrants a week with food and clothing.

Alfaro says they all want to know the same thing.

"Their first question is, 'Where can I get work?' " she says. "Legally, you have to get a work permit. You know, this is New York City, so we know there's kind of workarounds for that. But I tell them, 'Listen, you got to be careful.' "

Until recently, migrants from Venezuela couldn't be expelled to Mexico under the pandemic border restrictions known as Title 42. So immigration authorities have been releasing tens of thousands of Venezuelans per month into the United States, where they can seek asylum.

Experts say that the current wave of Venezuelan migrants, unlike migrants from Central America or Mexico, generally don't have social networks in the U.S., friends or family who can help them find their footing in the U.S. upon arrival.

Noel Tlatelpa and other volunteers distribute warm meals of chicken and rice to those in need at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
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José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Noel Tlatelpa and other volunteers distribute warm meals of chicken and rice to those in need at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.
Volunteers at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
/
José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Volunteers at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan earlier this month.

Immigration authorities have just launched a new program that will allow up to 24,000 Venezuelan migrants to live and work in the U.S. legally. But the only way to get in is to apply from abroad.

That means it won't help the more than 180,000 Venezuelans who've already been released into the U.S. in the past year. Since April, more than 20,000 migrants have sought shelter in New York alone, according to city officials.

Many of those migrants could qualify for work permits eventually – but only after they've officially applied for asylum. That's not a quick or easy process. In many cases, it takes years. And migrants say they can't afford to wait.

"My family lost their home," says Enderson Orlando, "and I'm desperate to find work here, and I haven't found anything."

Orlando flashed his phone and on the cracked screen appeared a video of flooding and destruction in his hometown of Las Tejerías, Venezuela. Devastating floods followed heavy rain there earlier this month.

Orlando, a scrawny 26-year-old, is one of hundreds of Venezuelan migrants – all men – staying at a shelter in an old armory building in Brooklyn. Dozens of men hang outside the armory at a busy intersection and crowd around reporters with curiosity.

Migrants eagerly receiving soda and water bottles along with donated meals outside the Atlantic Armory Shelter in Brooklyn earlier this month.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
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José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Migrants eagerly receiving soda and water bottles along with donated meals outside the Atlantic Armory Shelter in Brooklyn earlier this month.
Alexander Rosa Freites, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker, stands for a portrait near the Atlantic Armory Shelter in Brooklyn earlier this month.
/ José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
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José A. Alvarado Jr. for NPR
Alexander Rosa Freites, a Venezuelan asylum-seeker, stands for a portrait near the Atlantic Armory Shelter in Brooklyn earlier this month.

Alexander Rosa Freites, 40, says he worked as a massage therapist back home in Coro, Venezuela, about six hours from Caracas. The father of five says he's struggling to find any work at all because he doesn't have the right documents.

"When you try to get work in construction, they ask you for OSHA certification," Freites says. "If you don't have that, you can't work. If you don't have a social security number, you can't work."

One Venezuelan migrant starts over in Montana

Two-thousand miles away in Montana, José Albornoz has found what all the migrants outside the shelter in New York want: Stable employment.

His original plan was to head to New York, and meet up with a friend from Venezuela. But when he got there, his friend had lined up construction jobs for both of them – in Montana. Albornoz says he felt ecstatic.

"Let's go, I'm ready," Albornoz told his friend. "I came here to work."

Albornoz is still trying to make sense of his new surroundings. He says life in the U.S. is radically different than in Venezuela. He's still adjusting to the idea of buying with credit instead of cash, for instance.

"When you arrive here, you're lost," he says. "You land in a completely unknown world."

Albornoz is making $20 an hour, he says – enough to support himself, and send some money back to his wife and three daughters in Venezuela.

But Albornoz has encountered some obstacles, too. He's still living in a hotel room, which he shares with his friend, because he needs a credit history in order to rent a place of his own. And he hasn't been able to open a bank account, because his Venezuelan passport is expired.

Venezuelan migrant José Albornoz, 40, shortly after crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas in September.
/ Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
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Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Venezuelan migrant José Albornoz, 40, shortly after crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas in September.

Venezuelans can't renew their passports in the U.S. because the two countries don't have a diplomatic relationship. The closest place Albornoz can renew his is in Mexico, he says. He knows it will be hard to renew his passport, but he quickly tells himself that it's something that he can overcome.

"There are many possibilities here. If you come here ready to work, you have plenty of opportunity to pick yourself up," Albornoz says.

In Venezuela, Albornoz owned a small company that makes bully sticks – a dog treat that's made from a certain part of the bull. He sold his bully sticks to an exporter, and he was surprised to find out how expensive they are in the U.S.

"I don't know if I was getting cheated in Venezuela or if customers are getting cheated here," he jokes, noting that bully sticks cost at least 25% more here than what he was selling them for in Venezuela.

Albornoz dreams of someday restarting his bully stick business in the U.S. He knows it will be a challenge. But it doesn't faze him.

"I'm willing to work really hard to earn a higher quality of life," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.