Gustavo Sánchez was 19 years old when he was jailed in El Helicoide, a Caracas prison run by Venezuela's political police. He was 23 when he walked a dirt path across the border with Colombia.
From there he took three flights to reach Washington D.C., where he met with Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States. A photo of that meeting was used by Diosdado Cabello, Venezuela's second-highest government official, to accuse him of conspiracy. Sánchez knew he could not go home.
Today, now 24, and after sleeping on the floors of other Venezuelans in Miami, Sánchez has a square piece of paper with his name and a stamp that says “ASYLUM STATUS.”
The former me third-year law student at the Central University of Venezuela had to clean toilets and do all sorts of other jobs to make ends meet. “Venezuelans help, and thanks to that I managed to move forward. I am very thankful,” he told Univision Noticias by telephone after he got home at 9 pm following a long work day.
He received the asylum document in June, becoming one of the beneficiaries of the U.S. government decision to rule quickly on applications for political asylum received after Jan. 1 2018.
But Venezuelans who arrived before this year have not been so lucky, and there's a backlog of 70,000 petitions accumulated from 2015 to the end of 2018 – involving 200,000 people because requests for asylum are filed by family.
Sánchez' application took three months to move through the U.S. system. He submitted his paperwork in March of 2018 and became part of a record set by Venezuelans seeking U.S. asylum.
Sánchez was one of the more than 300 young Venezuelans who set up a tent camp in front of the U.N. Development Programme office in Caracas in 2014 to protest what he called “the critical situation we faced. We already had dead, political prisoners, repression.” Units of the Bolivarian National Guard raided the tents at 2 am, beating and arresting the protesters.
He spent four days detained in a military installation known as Core 5 and then three months in El Helicoide, run by the political police, known as Sebin, where he was tortured and abused.
“When I was released, other friends remained in prison, and that's when I decided to help the relatives and fight for the release of all political prisoners,” he said. Julio Borges, then president of the legislative National Assembly, appointed him as a human rights advocate within his office.
That's how he received Almagro's invitation in 2017 to go to Washington, home of the Organization of American States.
The Nicolas Maduro government had already seized the passports of several activists that Sánchez was defending, supporters of political prisoner Leopoldo López and his wife, Lilian Tintori. “That's why I always knew that they would not allow me to leave through the Maiquetia international airport,” he said.
When Cabello displayed the photo of Sanchez and accused him, Sanchez and his family realized he could not go back.
“I had brought just a small suitcase with two suits, not even a pair of blue jean and a few undershirts. With that, and $46, I started to roll. Thank God Venezuelans help you. The opposition in the United States helped me a lot. Little by little, I moved on, doing jobs I never imagined but very thankful for this country and the opportunities I have,” he told Univision Noticias.
Repression forcing people out
The increase in the number of U.S. asylum petitions filed by Venezuelans has coincided with the increase in protests and repressions that started around February 2014, ACCORDING TO THIS UNIVISION NOTICIAS REPORT
But none of the people interviewed for that report three years ago has received a reply to their asylum petition. Diego Arcaná, for example, received a work permit but has not been called for a key interview. He was also a victim of police abuse and suffered a wound on an eye.
Isabel Martínez (not her real name), a dentist who traveled to Miami with her family in 2016, is starting to worry. “They have not even called us for an interview, but I know someone who applied for asylum in 2014 and he's not been called either,” she said.
That's the same situation of a retired National Guard officer who applied for asylum in 2016 and is now tending bar in Miami Beach. He said he had refused to crack down on protesters and was shifted to administrative jobs. “I was a marked man and I was afraid. So when I had a chance, I left,” he said. “I've not even been called for the interview.”
A backlog of 70,000 cases
Asylum is a type of protection under U.S. law that provides refuge to foreigners who can show they have been persecuted in their countries or have a “credible fear” that they would be persecuted if they are forced to return home.
There are two forms of asylum applications, affirmative and defensive. The first is submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) within the first year of arrival. The second is handled by the Justice Department when an immigrant is facing a deportation order from an immigration court.
With either type of asylum, immigrants can obtain permanent U.S. residence (known as green card) after one year and citizenship after five years.
The asylum application is a long process because of the large number of requests received, and it's not always good for Venezuelans. In 2014, only 318 out of 1,844 Venezuelan applications were approved, and 466 out of 5,606 in 2015. In 2016, the U.S. government approved 328 out of 14,727 Venezuelan applications.
No figures for 2017 or 2018 are publicly available.
Attorney Julio Henríquez, who heads the Boston-based Refugee Freedom Program and specializes in Venezuelan cases, said he has won at least two cases this year and is waiting on others.
He said the long waits of three to four years were partly due to fraudulent petitions, which give applicants the right to a work permit while their paperwork was processed. They can save up money and then return to their home or another country.
That's why the U.S. government decided to quickly process the asylum petitions filed this year, and to issue deportation orders if they are denied.
“These deportation procedures are also slow. We're not yet seeing large numbers of immediate deportations,” Henríquez said. He added that many immigrants also don't understand U.S. government “euphemisms.”
“They don't tell you that your asylum has been denied, but that 'your asylum has been referred.' That means they started an immigration process and are sending you to court to start a legal process,” he said. “But it's a euphemism, so people don't realize they've been denied.”
He added that a client recently told him that when he went to a Miami immigration court that handles deportations for asylum denial cases, “that place was full of Venezuelans.”
No figures for deportations of Venezuelans are publicly available.
Henríquez cautioned that asylum applications are continuing to back up, and that the attempt to speed up the process for the 2018 cases has not worked as well as expected.
“Two months ago I submitted a case and I had the interview yesterday, for example,” he said. “Sometimes it takes four months, for the cases this year that they decided to prioritize.”
“There are still 70,000 applications by Venezuelans that they have not even heard yet,” he said.
The silent 'caravan' of Venezuelans
The recent photos and videos of entire families of Venezuelan immigrants in Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and other South American countries reflect what the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported in its most recent documents. Venezuelans make up the fourth largest group of asylum seekers in a registry the UNHCR has maintained from 2008 to 2017.
Peru has replaced the United States on the list of preferred countries, apparently because the South American country has shown a willingness to welcome the arrivals by recognizing documentation such as professional accreditations.
Henríquez said the asylum data can be used to create a “solidarity map” of Latin American countries that help Venezuelans fleeing political repression, more than 30,000 murders per year, poverty and shortages of food and medical services, among other problems.
“Other countries who received significant numbers of Venezuelan applications were Brazil (17,900), Spain (10,600), Panama (4,400), Mexico (4,000), and Costa Rica (3,200)” said one UNHCR report in 2017.
The document added that some Latin American countries have adopted new mechanisms, short of the formal asylum system, to allow Venezuelans to live and work and access social services for up to two years. These mechanisms include temporary residence permits, work permits, humanitarian visas and regional visa agreements.
“At the end of 2017, the countries that reported large numbers of Venezuelan arrivals were Chile (84,500), Colombia (68,700), Argentina (56,600), Panama (48,900), Ecuador (41,000), Peru (31,200), Brazil (8,500) and Uruguay (6,200), UNHCR reported.
Gustavo Sánchez' family remains in Venezuela, and police harassment against them continues. “Every time I make a statement in Miami my family is harassed in Venezuela. But I am not going to shut up,” he said.
Before ending the interview with Univision Noticias, Sánchez said he wanted to add something: “I am very thankful to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., who has made me feel at home. She not only protects Cubans but also Venezuelans.
He also had some advice for asylum applicants.
“Tell the truth, with details,” he said. “And make sure you have a good translator, preferably a Venezuelan who really understands every phrase, everything we're trying to say, exactly. And good luck.”