A tale of two Venezuelan families seeking refuge in Colorado and a shot at the American dream 

Photo: Tom Hellauer


Even as thick mud glopped around his thighs, with one child slipping down his back and the youngest thin and weak in his arms, José told himself there was only one choice: to keep moving.

By The Gazette – 

Jan 22, 2023

“We couldn’t give up,” said José, through a Denver woman who agreed to house his family while he looks for a job and works to gain political asylum.

“We could not return to Venezuela,” he said.

José and his family arrived in Denver in December, about a month before Carlos and Sulay – who also crossed the U.S.-México border without authorization – did.

The elderly couple – she’s 59, he’s 62 – stepped off of a bus in Denver before the sun came up, weary and cold with little more than a waterlogged cellphone and a rumpled $1 bill in their pockets.

Sulay told The Gazette in a WhatsApp text, “Queremos asilo.”

That translates to: “We want asylum.”

Neither family intended to stay in Denver, but the hospitality and warm welcome encouraged both to make the Mile High City their home. Both families are seeking protection from the U.S. government as political refugees.

They are but a few of the hundreds of thousands of people – many fleeing corrupt regimes in Central and South América, some seeking economic relief, others wanting a piece of the American dream – whose influx illustrates the calamity unfolding at U.S. border. The crisis has spilled over into cities in América’s interior, including Denver, which is more than 600 miles from El Paso, Texas.

Their arrival has strained local and state resources, compelled Denver to declare an emergency and caused severe tension between Colorado and destination states, notably New York and Illinois.

And just because they managed to get to the U.S. does not guarantee they can legally remain here.

“The difficult part is looking people in the eye and telling them they do not qualify for CHAN’s services,” said Allison Glover, director of community engagement for the Colorado Hosting Asylum Network.

CHAN, a nonprofit organization, supports asylum seekers as they await work authorization and pursue their application for protection in the U.S. This includes providing an immigration attorney at no or low cost.

Telling immigrant families they may not have a strong asylum case, Glover said, is “the most difficult part” of the job.

Only a fraction of the nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who have sought refuge in the United States will be granted asylum. Those who are turned away face limbo, a life of constant uncertainty that will haunt them and their children.

These newly arrived families – Carlos and Sulay, José and Nelly and their two young children – are among the more than 4,300 immigrant arrivals in Denver since Dec. 9.

The majority of immigrants, like these families, are from Venezuela, fleeing the economic uncertainty and violence in their home country.

The U.S. was the country’s largest trade partner before Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro, the handpicked successor of former President Hugo Chávez, assumed power in 2013.

The country has since descended into economic, humanitarian and political chaos. Maduro has jailed or banned political leaders and used food distribution as a social control tool.

Opponents of Madura’s government have been viciously punished.

José and Nelly’s home, the garden city of Maracay on Venezuela’s north central coast, had become overrun by Mafia-like gangs. Going to the police – who José said were “in cahoots” with Maduro’s government – was not an option.

José recounted a tale of constant fear living in his home country.

These gangs shot at his home. Some of his friends were captured and tortured in jail. José was on their radar as a member of an opposing party called Primero Justicia, which means Justice First. Primero Justicia’s aim is to bring democracy to Venezuela by holding open elections, establishing livable wages for teachers and doctors and keeping an elderly population from starving on a monthly government food budget of $7.

Jose told The Gazette that a carton of milk cost more than half of his weekly $20.91 paycheck.

“My children weren’t eating,” José said.

‘They will not arrest you’

Sulay and Carlos also fled in fear, terrified by the drug cartels.

The couple said they shuttered their bakery to escape an extortion ring that had threatened to kidnap their adult children if they failed to pay.

While the last leg of their journey was by bus, the pair also crossed rushing rivers and trudged over rugged mountains to avoid immigration checkpoints. In Guatemala alone, they walked more than 25 miles.

A tree fell on Carlos in Panamá.

José’s and Nelly’s four-month trek as fugitives may be a tale for their grandchildren – of crossing neck-high, snake-infested rivers, of terror the current would carry them under because none of them could swim.

In México, they were jailed for five days for showing fraudulent documents they had paid for and trusted were real.

The family planned to settle in the Bronx, where José has a brother, but once they got to México, other immigrants told them that Colorado was much closer, and just as welcoming.

“Word of mouth was that if you go to Denver, they will not arrest you,” he said.

Not like in Miami, he said, where a friend was caught and deported.

José and Nelly arrived in Colorado last month and were placed in one of three Denver shelters. They enrolled their eldest in kindergarten and have decided to make Denver their home.

“To be eligible, families have to have small children and they must be able to prove through evidence that they have suffered persecution,” Glover of the Colorado Hosting Asylum Network said.

CHAN tapped José and Nelly along with 10 other families as likely asylum cases.

A city under financial strain

Officials and nonprofit advocates say as many as 70% of the people who arrive in the Mile High City will migrate to other cities where they have family or friends.

Those who want to stay may have the welcome mat pulled from beneath their feet.

After withering, national criticism for busing immigrants out of state, Mayor Michael B. Hancock said he intends — without a timeline – to close the shelters. And stays from now on will be limited to two weeks.

“We have been working diligently on tracking each individual’s progress and ensuring they have adequate access to resources to continue to establish a longer term plan in Colorado,” Josh Rosenblum, a City and County of Denver spokesperson, told The Gazette in an email.

Rosenblum added, “As long as they have or are working toward a plan, they will not be asked to leave.”

Denver officials anticipate the humanitarian crisis will cost the city about $3 million. To date, Denver has spent roughly $2.5 million, something Hancock said has put a financial strain on the city.

To date, Denver has accepted more than 4,300 immigrants. New York City, however, has taken in more than 36,000 new families since April and spent $1 billion on its response in 2022, according to New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

‘Exercise of discretion’

Asylum in the U.S. is not guaranteed.

Beneficiaries must clear a security vetting, possess an unexpired passport, warrant “a favorable exercise of discretion” and have a financial supporter in the U.S. file on their behalf, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Very few will be accepted.

According to the United Nations, about 465,000 Venezuelans have sought refuge in the U.S.

The number fleeing has surpassed more than 7 million globally, making this the second-largest displacement in the world, according to the U.N.

To address the influx of Venezuelans crossing the southwest border, the Biden administration in October created a program for 24,000 Venezuelans who fly into the U.S. at their expense. Venezuelans who enter the U.S. without authorization risk removal.

Both families hope they will be among the lucky.

“Aqui, vimos que hay posibilidades de trabajo,” Sulay said, which translates to “we saw the job opportunities here.”

This week, José made $330 shoveling snow, but his specialty is cabinetry work and installing drywall.

José, Nelly and their children will stay with their host family for three months while they get settled. And CHAN will help them retain an immigration lawyer to begin the 4-to 6-year asylum process.

On his phone is what they hope is enough evidence to prove the political persecution he faced in Venezuela, which can be used to prove his case – a letter from a Primero Justicio leader explaining the urgency of his escape.

On Friday, he sank into a black leather chair and sighed. He had cash in his pocket, surrounded by donations of toys and coats yet to be unpacked.

His curly haired toddler challenged Lucy the English bulldog mix to a butt-slide race down the basement’s wooden stairs.

José says he’ll never put his children through another life-threatening trek like the one they just did.

“I want for them to go to school and to learn to speak English well,” he said finally removing his wool beanie, but not his coat.

“And that they go to church.”

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