Immigration

WhatsApp: a lifeline for new Venezuelan immigrants in Miami

The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the United States has soared. In the Miami area alone, more than 2,000 Venezuelans use at least nine chat groups to learn about jobs, housing, legal advice, and medical services. They tell their stories about leaving Venezuela and life in the U.S.
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5 Jul 2016 – 1:03 PM EDT

“Good evening. Just landed in Miami from Tachira. Don't know anything. I would be grateful for any help finding a job or a place to stay. Thank you.”

The WhatsApp message from a recent arrival from Venezuela came at 8:35 p.m. on a Thursday. But it could have come before dawn on a Sunday, at noon on a Monday or at any other time throughout the week. This chat group has no rules or restrictions. There are no set hours or restricted topics.


The first quarter of 2016 saw a spike in Venezuelan applications for asylum in the United States, a number on the rise since 2014. In February, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) statistics showed Venezuela in first place with 1,142 applications – 13 more than China, which historically led the list.

At least nine WhatsApp groups keep newly arrived Venezuelan immigrants in Miami informed through text message, photos, audio and promotions. Most have 256 members, the maximum allowed, and members often switch between groups, making room for more recent arrivals. Some belong to more than one group, desperate not to miss an important detail.

Jenny Rojas is the main administrator of the nine chat groups. She’s in charge of membership and sets rules for each group. Venezuelans United was the first group. “It will turn one year old on August 10, 2016, and we're going to celebrate,” she said.


Since last August, a new group has been born each month: Venezuelans in Miami, Venezuelans in Miami 2, We’re all Venezuelan, Venezuelans in the USA, Venezuelans united 1, I am Venezuelan, and Venezuelans in Betel and Venezuelans in Betel 2 (a reference to the “house of God”).

Rojas also manages chat groups in Orlando, New York, Oklahoma and other U.S. cities – also for Venezuelans.

Marta López belongs to the Venezuelans United group. She’s especially worried about the latest wave of immigrants.

“In the last four months we’ve seen the despair of people who come without knowing what they are going to find here, with little or no money, without knowing anyone,” she said. “They face a lot of hardships, and they have children.”

Getting asylum isn’t easy. Asylum-seekers must apply within a year of arriving to the United States, providing proof that they face persecution in their home country. It can take two years or more just to get a first interview with immigration authorities. If the immigration officer doesn’t accept the asylum application, it will go to immigration court – meaning the applicant risks getting deported.


“I've done work here that I never imagined I’d do, but at least I have quality of life.”

Felipe Rugeles is 18 years old. In El Valle, the working-class neighborhood in southern Caracas where he lived, he felt he had no future.. Leaving Venezuela was his idea, and his father approved. He's been in Miami for two months, working a variety of jobs for $8 an hour.

My family was never upper class. Many years ago we were middle class, but that's over. I was in my last year of high school and I was thinking about studying mechanical engineering at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. But in 2014, when I graduated, things got really bad. I felt we lost our quality of life. Studying anything at university made no sense.

At 18 you dream of accomplishing many things; you want to conquer the world. Then suddenly you're in a place where those possibilities don't exist – instead there is a high probability that thieves will kill you for your cell phone. You think that you're going to be killed or that something is going to happen to you.

I joined the student protests like everyone else, on the streets, near my school (about 20 minutes away by car). I saw the repression. The police and the military did horrible things. I saw them beat up a woman. It was a war.

One day I told my parents, 'I’m leaving.' I came to Miami in 2015 to do some things and check it out. After six months, I returned to Venezuela. But everything was worse. We wait in line to buy food and returned home with just one chicken. My father and I came [back to Miami] in March 2016. We hope to settle and bring my mother and sisters.

I've done work here that I never imagined I’d do. The hardest was the flower company, where I carried boxes before dawn. The boxes weigh 30 to 45 pounds. After carrying over a thousand pounds in a single day you can’t even feel your hands.

Around 2:00 a.m. about 20 trucks arrive to be unloaded. Don't even think about being hungry or thirsty or going to the bathroom. If you do, you have a Cuban behind you yelling 'Come on! Come on! Let's go! Come on!' And then it's 8:30 a.m.

One time I worked 14 hours straight. You have to clean the warehouse, separate the old boxes and arrange the new ones so everything fits. They pay you $8 an hour. It comes to about $80 per day after taxes.

At least we now have hope. We know that everything depends on us, our work, and respecting the law. And you can get ahead. For me, quality of life is leaving work and walking down the street without worrying that you'll be killed. Quality of life is to be at ease and know that things are going to get better.

USCIS figures show that 3,507 Venezuelans sought asylum in January, February and March of this year. That's more than the 855 reported for all of 2013 and the 2,939 for 2014.


Asylum petitions
Venezuela ranks second behind China as the country of origin for the largest number of asylum requests. Mexicans and Central Americans also rank among the top asylum seekers.

2014

2015

2016

1,500

China

Venezuela

Mexico

Guatemala

900

El Salvador

Honduras

Ecuador

300

India

Haiti

Ukraine

0

Feb

Jun

Dec

Jun

Dec

Mar

2014

2015

2016

1,500

China

Venezuela

Mexico

Guatemala

900

El Salvador

Honduras

Ecuador

India

300

Haiti

Ukraine

0

Feb

Jun

Dec

Jun

Dec

Mar

2014

2015

2016

1,500

China

Venezuela

Mexico

Guatemala

900

El Salvador

Honduras

Ecuador

India

300

Haiti

Ukraine

0

Feb

Jun

Dec

Jun

Dec

Mar

2014

2015

2016

1,500

China

Venezuela

Mexico

Guatemala

900

El Salvador

Honduras

Ecuador

India

300

Haiti

Ukraine

0

Feb

Jun

Dec

Jun

Dec

Mar

SOURCE: USCIS | UNIVISION

Is there a pediatrician in the group? Do you know of any work for me? Is $5 an hour good pay? Any good asylum lawyers? Where are they handing out free food this weekend?

These are just some of the anguished questions that regularly appear in WhatsApp groups.

Some chat groups focus on medical services. Some are more active than others. All share the hours and addresses for local food handouts, and all are safe havens where Venezuelans can post their fears and search for friendship and assistance.

There are also greetings for birthdays and Father's Day, photos of Venezuelan food and jokes, and even stories about the group members’ own personal tragedies. And of course there's a lot of chatter, like a conversation about low salaries for those without work permits that went on for a whole morning.

Free food

“Anyone around here going to the food handout today?”

Helena arrived by car with two Venezuelan friends at 2:00 a.m., to wait in line for food donations. The three of them will take loaded bags back to their families. They know about the weekend's food handouts thanks to WhatsApp.


“The day men with rifles started firing at the pool where my children were, that's when I decided I had to leave the country.”

Isabel Martínez is 36 years old. She has lived in a Doral hotel with her husband and two children for three months. Formerly a dentist for the Venezuelan health ministry, she was forced to join demonstrations supporting the government. She had to carefully ration anesthetics to treat more patients. She now spends early Saturday mornings picking up the food offered by charities.

Even though we arrived in Miami more than three months ago, my children (seven and four years old) still wake up at night shouting, 'The men with guns are coming!' The incident we experienced in Venezuela was the trigger that made us say, 'We're moving to another country.'

I lived in Guatire (one hour from Caracas in Miranda state) with my husband and children. We were anxious. We had stopped leaving the house frequently. But on that day, December 26, 2015, we decided to go to the neighborhood pool. The children were playing when suddenly men with rifles appeared. They were pointing guns, running, shouting, ordering us to get the kids out of the pool. We ran away, terrified.

Our situation was unsustainable. I had worked as a dentist in health ministry clinics starting in 2007 with a salary of about $17 per month. A year later, I was given a permanent job at a horrible political ceremony headed by Hugo Chavez at the Teresa Carreño Theater. I was forced to join the marches supporting the government, marking attendance at the beginning and end of those endless events.

The worst came in February 2014, when the student protests intensified and I tended to some of the wounded. They arrived all beaten up, with dental fractures and complications because of the attacks. My supervisor at the time was a Chavista and a member of pro-government militias, and he did not like it that I was helping the protest victims.

I had to ration the anesthetics for my patients. I had only 12 small capsules of anesthetics per week, and in one day I could perform 12 extractions. One patient may need three capsules for one extraction. It was a nightmare.

I now spend every Saturday going around to the free food distribution points. People have helped me a lot here, given me furniture and other stuff. But we're still living in a hotel in Doral. We pay $1,350 per month.

We're going to ask for asylum. My husband works unloading boxes that weigh 90 pounds from shipping containers, earning about $100 per day. He leaves at 9:00 a.m. and comes home at 9:00 p.m. Sometimes they call him because he knows about sound systems, and they pay him $150 for the day. I am willing to clean, cook, take care of children, whatever. I don't care. Despite all the sacrifices we are better off here than in Venezuela.


The organizers of the food dispensary are volunteers from Farm Share. They help pack and distribute bags of items donated by large food stores in South Florida. Volunteers guide vehicles through the waiting line and put notes on their windshields tallying how many families are picking up bags of vegetables, chicken, meat and other items. After a couple hours, the families get what they need, thank everyone, and leave.

On Saturday, June 11, one food distribution event took place at the Comunidad de Cristo Church in southwest Miami. Afterwards, Helena drove 30 minutes to wait in another line in the parking lot at the Miami Zoo. By 9:00 a.m., the line stretched for three miles as Farm Share volunteers loaded bags into car trunks.

“We see more and more Venezuelans on these lines,” said Marta López as she waited in her car. Some days she volunteers to hand out food, and other days she delivers bags to the homes of Venezuelans who have to work during distribution hours.

“I’m Venezuelan.”


Jenny Rojas is from Ciudad Guayana in southern Venezuela. “If they want to be helped, I help. But there are people who don't want to be helped, and they have more problems than they should,” she says. She walks up the stairs and opens the door to the office.

Six people with Venezuelan accents are asking athlete Roberto Pérez many questions. He came to Miami to try his luck. He's staying with his sister and her husband. And yes, he likes it here and wants to stay. He just won a triathlon, and is hoping that will open some doors for him. He's heard about a U.S. visa for top-level athletes like him.

He talks about his training – eight hours or more of swimming and long-distance running in the Miami heat. “I have blisters from carrying things, from working in warehouses. I've had to do anything to feed myself and support my family in Venezuela. And I have to come up with the money for the visa, about $10,000 for a lawyer and the [application] process.”

The others listen and ask more questions. They also want to tell their stories. They want to talk, but under one condition: that their real names or photos aren’t published, especially ones showing poverty.

“It's not true. We aren’t poor. We’re people facing a difficult situation in our country as well as here, where we want to work to rebuild our lives. We only want a work permit, papers, and to be able to do what we know how to do – work,” said a young photographer. Everyone nods in agreement.


“Our family in Venezuela tells us to stick it out, because everything is worse there.”

Rita González landed in Miami four months ago with just $200 in cash. She paid the money to an “agency” to find her a job. She and two friends split a $2,000-per-month salary to clean a restaurant before dawn. Now she's finding jobs for others and living in a house in Doral where she rents out rooms.

Last night was the final straw. I'm not going back to that job. You get to the restaurant at 9:00 p.m. and you have to clean everything: the kitchen, the bathrooms, the tables, everything, until 5:00 a.m. It's really tough. Do you know what it's like to spend every morning cleaning with just two other people?

The job pays $2,000, to be divided between people who work seven days a week. I made about $600 in May and June, but I’m too tired. It’s very, very hard.

I landed in Miami on February 25, 2016, with $200 in my pocket. I came alone because someone offered to find me a job. I paid $200 and I lost the money – he didn't get me anything.

But now I have my own agency, and I help find jobs for other people. I've worked mostly as a waitress in hotels. Some pay better than others, like $9.50 an hour, or $80 per day.

I rented a house in Doral. They didn't ask for a security deposit or the first month’s rent, but I rented it for $3,600 per month. (On Zillow, rent is listed at $2,100 per month). I rent out the two other bedrooms. Right now there are eight adults and one girl.

There are a lot of people here who help you, sympathetic people, and also people who cheat you and mess with you because they know you can't file a complaint against them. One guy sold us a car, which we paid for with our car in Venezuela. On the second day, the car broke down and he didn't want to hear about it. He insulted my husband and threatened to call immigration. When I have papers, I want to file a complaint against him, but right now I can't.

I’ve already sent food to my family. And they tell me: 'Don't you even think about coming back. Stick it out there. Everything is worse here.'


Venezuelans are worried about low-paid, occasionally dangerous work. “These seven stitches on my arm cost me $1,800,” said Sergio.

Rafael interrupts them, saying that at least they have access to the WhatsApp groups. “Fifteen years ago, when I came, that didn't exist. When we heard a Venezuelan was arriving, we met at a house, we talked, we got advice. But it's not like today. You have it easier.”

He leaves the room. He’s a U.S. resident who spends his free time helping his countrymen.


“I tell everyone not to come to Miami, that it’s really hard. But they don't listen to me.”

Marta López belongs to the Venezuelans United group on WhatsApp. In Venezuela, she was active in the protests against Nicolás Maduro’s government until the authorities gave her a reason to leave the country: fear. Two months after losing the eldest of her four children, she witnessed arrests and repression in the streets of Caracas in February 2014.

I did help the student protesters. I gave them food, washed their clothes, helped them with everything they needed because I believe in democracy and freedom.

Every once in a while new people joined us and I helped out. Let me tell you about Ana. She washed clothes, cooked food, and took care of the protesters … One night I was watching Diosdado Cabello [a high-ranking member of the government] on television and I saw him giving Ana a prize for being one of his best 'collaborators.'

That day I understood why the ‘political police’ had gone to my company and my house: to look for me. Luckily I wasn’t there when they arrived. I was terrified. I went into hiding and didn’t go home. I really learned what fear was. My husband and I decided to come to the United States.

The eldest of my four children, who was 20, was studying in the United States. I also have an 18-year-old, and my two other children are seven and five, all boys. Our oldest son visited the last Christmas we spent in Venezuela, and he died in an accident at the beach.

A few months after that horrible day, we decided to leave and come to Miami. I always tell people not to come to Miami. It's expensive and difficult; people face many hardships and the papers aren’t easy. I offer them all my support, but I tell them to think it over carefully. Without planning, immigration is very difficult.

I belong to one of the WhatsApp groups, and I spend my mornings trying to help any way I can. On Saturdays I wait in line for food and then I deliver it to Venezuelans who are working or sleeping after working all night. Since I came to this country, I've done everything to earn money, from cleaning homes and offices to picking up empty bottles at a nightclub to making deliveries.

I dream of starting a business and achieving financial freedom in this country. My husband and I are working toward our dreams. I think of the day when everything is fixed in my country and I can go home. I do dream about that.

Some members of the group don't know each other, but they greet each other warmly. “This isn’t just any group. This is a family,” said Jenny Rojas. That's also how she greets the new group members, who are timid but full of questions.

They all know about Yelitza, who slept in a rented car for four nights at the Miami airport with her family. “I found her on the fourth night and brought her to my house. That was two months ago, and the two adults already have jobs. They rented a place and are doing well,” Rojas says.

When she started managing the chat groups, Rojas never imagined so many members. She began thinking about a foundation. Last week, she launched Yo soy Venezolano (I am Venezuelan). She hopes to use it to receive donations for families who land in Miami with nothing more than the hope of escaping the difficult situation in Venezuela.

Rojas and López get phone calls at all hours of the day -- an eviction, hunger, medicine, a doctor. And then there are people in hospitals whose cases Rojas handles personally. There is cancer, car accidents, emergency surgeries – all without health insurance. One hospital has been especially helpful, they say, but it's closing its doors because of the growing number of Venezuelan patients. That's another problem Jenny Rojas is trying to fix.

Behind the façade in Doral

The city of Doral appears picturesque, with recently painted and exclusive homes and lakes full of ducks and herons. But what's behind the image? Families crowded into one bedroom so they can pay rent.

Every night, Nora, Andrea, Betsy and Tomás walk past their neighborhood pool on the way to work, cleaning restaurants, carrying boxes of flowers or standing for hours in a shopping mall. Miranda walks around the lantern-lit lake when she gets home at dawn after sitting for hours at a bar, making sure clients buy 10 drinks without touching her. Only then will she be paid the day's salary.

“I live in a huge house, and I’m broke,” Laura Rosa wrote on WhatsApp.

Marta López reads the posts and buries her face with her hands. “Some very bad things are happening here. It's horrible what's happening to us Venezuelans.”

Facing deportation

Most of the stories on WhatsApp focus on one issue: asylum requests. Venezuelan lawyer Julio Henríquez, director of the non-profit Refugee Freedom Program, cautioned that the U.S. government has barely started reviewing petitions as far back as 2013.

“They haven't reviewed even the first of this new wave in 2016, and none from the wave that started in February 2014, when the government cracked down [on the opposition]. They have resolved some of the more urgent cases, but it's all delayed. What's going to happen? By mid-2017 there will be a mass deportation of Venezuelans,” he said.

“Our organization is not prepared to defend them, to be present for their trials. That's going to be a problem, and as far as I know no one is preparing for that. And it's going to be ugly. Not everyone can make the argument for asylum,” said Henríquez.

He also warned of many cases of fraud by those interested in profiting off desperate Venezuelans. He cautioned against using public notaries to handle asylum petitions.


They threatened us. You’re going to die, little Yankees, traitors of the homeland.”

We became enemies of the state because we were always on the side of the opposition. We collaborated with the students protesting against Nicolás Maduro’s government from January to May of 2014. We took them water and rags with vinegar to protect them from tear gas thrown by the National Guard. We were nearly arrested several times.

But one time they followed and ambushed us. They were riding motorcycles, and it was clear they were members of colectivos [armed pro-government groups]. Their shirts had the insignia of the PSUV [the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela] and “Chavez Lives!”

They forced us out of the car – me, my wife, my three children and my mother-in-law. They put a pistol in my mouth. I was sure they were going to shoot me. They shoved the pistol around my mouth so much that I got a bunch of sores. They pulled the women's hair, threw them on the ground and kicked them.

After that, they followed us several more times. They would threaten us and say, 'You’re going to die, little Yankees, traitors of the homeland.' They knew where we lived and where our business was. The following month they broke into our office, destroyed a computer and stole another. They left messages for me there. When we got there, we found graffiti on the windows.

When we were going to pick up our daughter at school, suddenly people on motorcycles would drive by and shout ‘You're going to die.’ The persecution went on for three months.

Then came the express kidnapping of my children and one of their wives. The kidnappers drove them around and beat them. When they were freed, the kidnappers sent me a message: they told me to stop writing against the government on Twitter, or else I would suffer the same fate as a friend jailed in ‘the tomb’ – an underground jail where the government holds political prisoners.

Every two years we would go on a family trip. So we already had tickets to Miami for a vacation. In the end the tickets helped us escape from the horror. The trip was set for the day after they freed my children and daughter-in-law. We gathered up what we could, personal documents, some clothes, and ran like crazy to the airport because we had to be there at 3:00 a.m. and it was already midnight.

We came to the United States about a year ago. The money isn’t quite enough. I have a neighbor who's a gardener and sometimes he pays me to help him. Another neighbor in construction also asks for help and pays me. I work until late. I've lost 30 pounds and my arms hurt. We have worked washing dishes, cars, everything. My children get work here and there.

Sometimes we barely make rent, and we save on groceries by going every Saturday to the places where they give away food. We are practically living off charity.

I am hopeful that we will get rid of this regime. Then we will be able to return to our country.

Patricia Clarembaux contributed to this report.

Isabel González went to one of the immigrant assistance centers on June 30, holding her asylum application. “They told me they are so busy that they won’t accept anything else until November. I can't wait until November.”

She left so heartbroken that she hasn’t wanted to post on WhatsApp since.

The screen on her cell phone lights up. It's Catalina.

“Dear group, I got money to move into an apartment. Thank you for your support. Let me know about any donated beds for my daughters and me. I have an apartment without furniture but full of love.”

Note: With the exception of Jenny Rojas, all the names in this story were changed at the request of those interviewed for this report.

Rachel Glickhouse contributed to this report.

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