SALT LAKE CITY — Lured by the epicenter of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Carlos Moreno traveled with his wife from Venezuela to Salt Lake City for college.
It was 2009, and though he’d completed law school in his home country, Moreno went to work mastering the English language at Salt Lake Community College, with plans to later return to Venezuela to help fight the emerging socialist government.
But his life and the lives of thousands like him would change forever when the Venezuelan regime decided to block — or make it incredibly difficult — for international students to access their own money as part of the country’s complicated system of currency control. The students had needed to request their own money, but the regime decided to often stop granting permission.
That started a crisis for more than 25,000 students abroad, Moreno recalled.
“My story is kind of different to other stories, because at that moment I was a regular citizen in Venezuela, a lawyer just practicing law. But when I came here, all the problems started for international students,” he said.
“Can you imagine having more than 25,000 students with no house, no food, kicked out from their college because, you know, ‘You don’t pay your tuition, you lost your visas.’”
Fearing retribution from the increasingly controlling government, Moreno says most of the students didn’t want to speak out about it. It’s a story that wasn’t widely reported.
But Moreno and his wife chose a different response.
“We cannot be silent. I knew that if I made the decision, I never can come back to Venezuela. Because they don’t like dissidents. They don’t like people who say no to their policies,” he said.
He organized fellow Venezuelan students in an activist group.
Meanwhile, many fellow international students were leaving their schools. Moreno recalled a phone conversation with one 18-year-old Venezuelan student studying in France who “was walking around Paris because he didn’t have any house to live, because he was kicked out from his house, and also from the college.”
Moreno began reaching out to organizations like the United Nations and the White House in an effort to bring awareness to the issue. That awareness prompted the Venezuelan government to decide “to send some money to some people, but not everyone,” according to Moreno.
The activists got Venezuela’s opposition party, which at that time held a supermajority in the country’s Parliament, to pass a bill that declared a humanitarian crisis for international students. That helped them get help from some schools and protected them from deportation, he said.
Before one of his first meetings with officials in Washington, D.C., Moreno turned his phone off overnight because he was inundated with messages from family members and friends. When he woke up in the morning, he turned his phone back on and saw more than 1,000 messages.
That was because the president of the Venezuelan Parliament at the time, whom Moreno says is also a drug lord, had named Moreno on national television and called him a traitor to his country. He was charged with treason and conspiracy against the Venezuelan government.
“Now this is real. I cannot come back to Venezuela. I did not know what I needed to do in that moment.”
Moreno says his wife hadn’t expected them to face such backlash, and the aftermath was difficult.
She went eight years without seeing her family in Venezuela. “And that was really sad. When you have a family, when you love your family, not seeing your family is the worse nightmare that anyone can have.”
They applied for political asylum — a process that took four months to apply, and four months to receive approval with the help of then-Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. Moreno says that was a “miracle,” as it often takes much longer for people to receive political asylum.
He became the first Latino student elected student body president at Salt Lake Community College, which gave him full tuition and a monthly stipend that helped him feed his family.
“That was really a miracle I never expected. Because many of my friends left college. They didn’t graduate, because they didn’t have that money to pay tuition.”
In Utah, Moreno says he was one of 220 students affected by Venezuela blocking them from receiving their money. At his college, just three of 55 graduated, he said.
Since then, he and his wife have had two boys, with another one on the way. Facing threats from the Venezuelan government, many of their family members have also found safety here.
“It’s like, you have your heart over there because everything that you love is there. But, for example, for me it’s like a mix of feelings, because now my two sons, and I’m gonna have a new one this month, they were born here. And this is their country,” Moreno explained.
He’s also grown to love America, something he says is easy for many immigrants because of the “fascination” with freedom many outside the country hold. “You start loving this country for the freedom, the opportunity, the many things that you can get here,” he said.
Now, Moreno wants to help the immigrant and Latino community get involved in politics — and help leaders reach out to them.
“If we don’t understand, if we don’t understand how you run the government, we’re going to make mistakes in the future. This is a beautiful city,” he said, motioning out the window overlooking the mountain-lined Salt Lake City in his office at a Cottonwood Heights insurance company.
“Everything works. For me, it’s like a model for every city in the world. But if we don’t learn, for example ... right now if I don’t learn how to be part of the government, or how you think about watching the future, I don’t have the ability to be successful like our leaders right now.”
The Latino community is among the nation’s fastest-growing demographics, he said, and the U.S. needs to see it as part of its future.
“If we don’t prepare immigrants to think like you, to be ready to understand how to run the government ... to be engaged with their community, we’re going to fail in the future.”
Most members of the immigrant community are hard workers, he said, and often came from countries that lacked freedom.
“When you are an immigrant, you have to run faster than anyone. And you have to take more risks than anyone,” he explained.
But there’s a disconnect among many immigrants and their communities, according to Moreno.
He says being an immigrant is difficult, because it usually means one has been pushed out of one’s home country and into a new, unfamiliar one.
But in Utah, “the majority of people, no one cares what your immigration status is here. People love you, because maybe they have experience in other countries. And they understand more the international scenario of being an immigrant.”