Out of the 4 million Venezuelans who left the country, 1.4 million are in Colombia and 421,000 in the United States. (Photo by alexandersr via Pixabay)
Features, North America, United States, Venezuela

Leaving in Haste, Newest Venezuela Migrants in U.S. Face More Challenges Than Previous Generations Did

November 21, 2019 By Maria Abreu

NEW YORK José arrived in New York in July after only two months of planning his move. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who recently escaped the country’s political and economic chaos to start a new life in the United States. Despite earning a medical degree last year from the Central University of Venezuela, he works as a server at a Venezuelan restaurant in Manhattan – his third job since his arrival. He asked that we only use his first name.

The Venezuelans who have migrated to New York in recent years have more financial resources and opportunities than the Venezuelans fleeing to other parts of South America, but they face more challenges than previous generations of Venezuelan migrants in the United States, who often had more financial support and left while the bolívar was strong. Young Venezuelans who leave today have fewer resources to begin with and often have to make it on their own in the United States, with the added financial burden of sending money back home. Venezuela has been unraveling politically and economically for the past 15 years, but things have gotten much worse in the last three years. Since 2016, more than 4 million people have fled the country, representing the second largest exodus in the world, after only Syria, according to the Organization of American States. 

Out of the 4 million Venezuelans who left the country, 1.4 million are in Colombia and 421,000 in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute and the Pew Research Center. From 2000 to 2017, the Venezuelan population in the United States has grown by 352%. More than 9,000 Venezuelans currently live in New York. Despite this population growth, many Venezuelans struggle to find support systems and rely on social media  to help them integrate into their new communities. 

Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, an associate director at the Migration Policy Institute, compared this exodus to the Syrian refugee crisis during a webinar on Sept. 27. Most Syrians in Turkey have received international protection status as a way to bypass the country’s immigration procedures, Banulescu-Bogdan said. The Turkish government also established temporary education centers for refugee children to eventually integrate them into Turkish schools. By contrast, the United States government has not introduced educational services for Venezuelan migrants. Republican members of Congress have tried to pass a bill that would allow Venezuelans to apply for Temporary Protected Status, which currently benefits some Salvadorans, Haitians, Hondurans and other immigrants, but the measure failed on the Senate floor in September.

Since his arrival, José has had three jobs, including stints as a dishwasher and pushcart vendor. He found these jobs thanks to friends from college who moved to the city two years ago and to social media pages, such as @veneyorker and @venezolanosennewyork on Instagram. These accounts post opportunities for employment, housing and English classes as well as provide visa information. “I haven’t found out about any organizations in the city that help. These accounts answer my questions super fast,” José said in Spanish. 

While living in Caracas, José didn’t go through the same hardships that afflict many other Venezuelans in the country, such as enduring long lines to access staple foods and supplies, like soap and laundry detergent. However, as a doctor he worried that the daily blackouts and the lack of medical equipment and supplies would prevent him from doing his job, so he moved to New York. Not everything was better in the United States, however. “(New York) is scary; you don’t see this hustle in Caracas,” he said. “I’m getting out of my comfort zone. At home I had my own car, house, I didn’t lack anything.”  

Alejandro Velasco, a professor of Latin American modern history at New York University, migrated from Caracas to Boston in 1996. He said non-profit organizations are focusing on changing U.S. policies toward Venezuela instead of providing on-the-ground resources for recent migrants.  “The organizations that currently exist, are focusing on pushing Temporary Protective Status since they know the lobbying system and want to change (U.S.) policies toward Venezuela,” Velasco said. “But there has not been a development of social support networks for populations that are escaping the crisis. Now, the vacuum is being filled by social media or family ties.” 

Similar to the first generations of other immigrant groups who moved to New York, Venezuelans are finding opportunities by word of mouth and informal networks, thus creating social anchors and attracting other Venezuelans to the city, Velasco said. As a Venezuelan immigrant himself, Velasco agrees that Venezuelans who migrated to the United States a decade ago were better prepared financially and academically. “Those who left like me had a higher social status,” Velasco said. “They arrived in Houston, New Jersey and New York with family contacts and cultural knowledge (of the United States). It’s not like the people who left two or three years ago and are suffering the most. It’s not a possibility for them to go to the U.S. because there isn’t an established network that would benefit their cultural immersion in a moment of political crisis.” 

Velasco came from a middle-class family and attended an American high school in Caracas. For him, it was easier to go to college in the United States because all the subjects he learned during high school were taught in English. This facilitated his move to Boston, where he enrolled in Boston College to study history and communication. For migrants like him, the move to the United States was natural, and maybe even preordained. For many of those who leave today, the move was relatively sudden and unplanned.

There have been three major migration waves since Hugo Chávez won the presidential election in 1998. Yorelis Acosta, a clinical and social psychologist from the Central University of Venezuela who lives in Caracas, has studied the psychological and cultural stresses that the most recent wave of Venezuelan migrants have experienced in Colombia and the United States. She said each of these waves have left in very different circumstances. 

“Of the first group of Venezuelans who left, more than 50% were professionals with college and doctoral degrees. Most of them migrated to the U.S. and Europe,” Acosta said. “The second wave migrated to other parts of Latin America by bus, having economic resources and a plan. The third wave migrated on foot, and are the most vulnerable and poor people of the country. They have gone mostly to Colombia and Peru.” 

The timing of the migration not only affects access to opportunities in the destination country, but causes different degrees of psychological distress. Acosta is currently conducting interviews in Colombia and has found that the migrants there experience depression that could lead to suicide. “The migrants that are in the U.S. have stronger emotional and cognitive skills, making their transition smoother,” she said. The adaptation process varies from country to country, and the issues that migrants face in New York are not as impactful as the issues migrants face in South America. 

“Which Venezuelan, with no money and no plan, is going to move to New York?” Acosta said. “The migrants in New York are not the most vulnerable ones. They have a plan, even if they are working in something that is different from what they studied. They know their situation is temporary and have a strategy. They are aware that they have to study more or get certifications.” 

José has a plan, too, which helps him remain optimistic about his future, despite the fact that he gave up his career to move to New York and has to start over. He is currently working to save money through his server job so he can obtain a medical license in the United States or Spain. To keep up with the healthcare industry, he continues to study independently and follows social media accounts related to medicine. He is confident he will eventually work as a doctor. 

“I know I am making arepas now, but I will eventually do my actual job,” he said.