When Lever Alejos of Venezuela arrived at the southern border penniless in July, he happily accepted a free bus ride to Washington, DC, courtesy of the state of Texas. He had no family or friends to receive him and spent a night in the square opposite Union Station. He soon settled in a homeless shelter.
“I have nothing,” said Alejos, 29, on his third day in the city, “but I have the will to work and succeed.”
Two months later, Alejos is earning between $600 and $700 a week, saving to buy a used car, and planning to move out of the shelter.
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“There are so many opportunities here,” he said at the end of a day’s work on Thursday. “You just have to take advantage of it.”
Since April, thousands of migrants, most of them Venezuelans, have been lured onto buses and planes bound for Washington, New York, Chicago and, last week, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, after endured a perilous overland journey from their broken country for a fresh start in the United States.
Transport to Democratic strongholds has been organized by Texas, Florida and Arizona, whose governors are trying to draw attention to a record rise in the number of people crossing the border, blaming the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
Last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott dropped off two busloads of migrants near Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence, and more over the weekend. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Wednesday chartered two small planes to fly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, the luxury resort island off Massachusetts that he has derided as a liberal bastion.
Democrats have called the stunts cruel and many migrants have been made at least temporarily homeless as their new host cities scramble to help them.
But others, like Alejos, have called the free transportation a blessing. They are already in service and are achieving a degree of stability. They have found jobs in construction, hospitality, retail, trucking and other sectors facing labor shortages in an economy still recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
“In most major cities, including those where governors transport migrants, employers are trying to find workers,” said Chris Tilly, a labor economist at UCLA. “They fill a need.”
Michelle Rumbaut, a hospital administrator assisting migrants in San Antonio, recalled a recent group of young Venezuelans she met and determined to reach New York, where jobs awaited them.
They were exhausted and traumatized after watching young girls being raped, trudging past dead fellow migrants and robbed on their months-long journey to reach the United States, she recalls.
But they immediately found work to cut trees for real estate developers in the San Antonio area, raising enough money to buy some flights to New York.
Migrants like Alejos are simultaneously symbols of a humanitarian crisis, pawns in a partisan discussion and people who simply follow the economics of supply and demand.
Most face an uphill battle to win their asylum cases. But the legal process will take years to complete, and those who lose their cases tend to live the rest of their lives in the shadows, trying to remain employed and out of reach of immigration officials in charge. are with deportation.
In the meantime, they are mobilizing cities’ resources both to provide them with social services and to fill a gap in the national labor market.
While as many as 8 million immigrants work in the United States without authorization, asylum seekers eventually get work permits while their cases are pending.
Since 2015, Venezuelans fleeing hardship have poured into South American countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile. All told, nearly 7 million have left the country during that time, more than 1 in 5 Venezuelans.
As the coronavirus pandemic hampered those economies, Venezuelans began to leave the South American host countries for the United States. Others began migrating directly from Venezuela as word spread that Venezuelans were allowed to enter the United States and then apply for asylum.
They represent the fastest growing group of migrants arriving at the Mexico-US border.
On their 3,000-mile journey to reach that border, they must cross the Darien Gap, a 60-mile stretch through dense jungle, where migrants said they had fallen prey to bandits, drug traffickers and people smugglers. At a post at the end of the route, MSF reported that it had cared for 100 rape victims in the first five months of 2022.
This year, Alejos decided he had to brave that arduous journey.
He was a solid middle class in Venezuela, struggling to keep his machine repair shop afloat amid the country’s economic collapse. In Venezuela today many people earn only a few dollars a day.
To pay for the odyssey through seven countries, Alejos sold his repair shop in his hometown, Barquisimeto, in northern Venezuela, for the paltry $750. “That was my down payment for a new life,” he said.
His journey through the Darien Gap was a nightmare, he said. Mexican officials and cartels were threatening.
When he finally waded across the Rio Grande to Texas, he turned himself in to the US border authorities, who processed him, gave him immigration papers and delivered him to a barn, where other Venezuelans had also been dropped off.
They were then offered a free bus to Washington, or a $50 bus ride to San Antonio.
They arrived in Washington at the end of July.
Within days, Alejos found work in construction. By the second week, he was sending money home to support his 7-year-old son Christopher and saving to buy a cell phone. By late fall, he plans to move from the shelter to his own place.
After an allergic reaction to chemicals on his construction job, he quit and came across an ad on a Facebook page of Venezuelans in Washington. A company was looking for people to work at events – football and soccer matches, conferences and private parties in various capacities.
Soon, the day before the games, he was stocking concession stands with food and other essentials, serving hot dogs, nachos, and beer to spectators at the events. He has worked at FedEx Field in Maryland; college facilities, such as the University of Virginia’s Scott Stadium; and other locations in the area.
Sometimes he is asked to work as a bartender, waiter or dishwasher.
It’s not a dream job, he said, but it’s a good start — and he’ll give it his all.
“I always show initiative, do extra tasks here and there that my supervisor notices,” he says. “This could lead to something bigger; I am gaining experience.”
“What I need now is to achieve financial stability,” he said. “Next comes professional growth.”
He sends his son $150 twice a month.
“Christopher’s quality of life has improved 100% since I came to this country,” he said, referring to better nutrition, new clothes, trips to restaurants and visits to an amusement park.
Alejos bought himself a new cell phone and earplugs, shirts and pants and shoes. “I try to keep my priorities straight,” he said. “I’m not saving. I am trying to build an emergency fund.”
In three weeks he hopes to buy a 2012 Honda Civic.
His only regret is that his schedule does not allow him to attend private English classes. But he has found a way to teach himself, the Duolingo language learning app, and then he tries to practice with clients.
Alejos said he had followed the instructions he had been given by the authorities to check in at the local immigration office, and that he intended to apply for asylum.
He will have to plead his case before an immigration judge, but said he had not yet been notified of his first court date. The process usually takes several years. The chances of winning are slim and applicants are ordered to leave the United States if they lose. But by the time a decision is made, many migrants have settled in, which is a disincentive to leave.
While thousands of migrants have been swiftly expelled to Mexico or deported back to their countries under a pandemic-related health order known as Title 42, Venezuelans are not subject to the policy because Mexico will not accept them and the United States has no diplomatic ties with Venezuela.
In his spare time, Alejos explores his adopted city with fellow Venezuelans, visiting the Natural History Museum, the zoo, Chinatown, and the Capitol.
“I always try to see something new on my days off,” he said, often posting selfies on Facebook during the outings.
He misses his family, he said. But he is philosophical about his circumstances.
“Often you have to suffer to be compensated later,” he said.
After spending a night on the streets and a night in a shelter where he felt unsafe, Alejos stayed in another shelter which he described as neat, comfortable and orderly. “Everyone has a locker; the sheets are clean; showers have hot water and there is wifi – all services,” he said.
“I feel privileged that the governor put me on a bus to Washington,” Alejos said. “It opened doors for me.”
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