It took over two months for Alexander to walk from Venezuela to the U.S.-Mexico border with his wife Raimar, 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, joining the roughly 7 million Venezuelans who have fled their country since 2015, and likely hundreds who have resettled in Utah.
But when asked why they chose Utah, Alexander said that’s a better question for the Department of Homeland Security.
“They didn’t tell us anything. They don’t tell you anything. In the parole (documents) it was just showing the appointment with the judge in (Utah),” he said.
“The immigration officer didn’t speak Spanish very well. They just stop you, but they don’t tell you anything,” added Raimar. Both she and Alexander asked the Deseret News to only use their middle names.
In the last several months, community groups and state officials have seen a rise in asylum-seekers, mostly from Venezuela, coming into Utah. Some have a Utah connection, whether family or friends, and some have sponsors living in the state.
But organizers say there’s an increasing number of Venezuelan migrants showing up along the Wasatch Front who claim they were sent to Utah by U.S. officials at the border, seemingly at random.
“They don’t tell us, they’re just shipping people out anywhere they want. It’s our community that’s letting us know, ‘hey, I’ve heard about a group of individuals arriving in Salt Lake City, West Valley, West Jordan, Logan or Ogden,’” said Jesler Molina, whose organization Alianza Venezolana has been overwhelmed with newcomers in the last few months.
Some families have to spend the night on the street, in motel lobbies or movie theaters, says Molina. Others are dropped off at public transportation hubs, or homeless shelters where they spend days, sometimes weeks, unbeknownst to advocates in Utah.
The asylum-seekers aren’t coming in numbers that others areas are seeing, including New York, Florida and Washington D.C. There are no reports of a state-level, politically motivated attempt to bus migrants to Utah, like what’s been reported in Texas and Arizona.
But it’s the lack of communication, mostly between the Department of Homeland Security and Utah officials, that’s causing chaos. Since September, Molina estimates there to be between 60 to 100 people from Venezuela who were sent to Utah. Natalie El-Deiry, director of immigration and New American integration under the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, gave a similar estimate.
El-Deiry has repeatedly asked DHS officials for better communication — they have been responsive to the state’s concerns, she says.
“But at times, it’s really difficult to get that dialogue to move into action and closer coordination. And understandably so, there’s a lot of people being processed at the southern border going to cities and communities all across the country,” said El-Deiry, who told the Deseret News simply knowing the number of migrants the state can anticipate would be helpful.
The Biden administration launched a new sponsorship program in October, modeled after a similar program for Ukrainians, that allows U.S. residents to sponsor migrants from Venezuela to give them humanitarian parole. The program is an attempt to dissuade migrants from embarking on the long and dangerous trek through Central America, a journey rife with crime and violence.
While DHS tracks the recipients of both programs, that data isn’t shared with individual states — Utah officials don’t really know how many Ukrainians or Venezuelans are resettling in the state.
What’s even harder to track are the migrants who show up unannounced, with no ties to Utah. If Title 42, the Trump-era public health policy that allows Border Patrol agents to turn away asylum-seekers on the basis of public health, is overturned, state officials are expecting those numbers to rise.
Venezuelan migrants in recent years have become one of the largest demographics encountered along the southern border, with 25,361 apprehensions reported in August, 33,804 the following month and 22,044 in October. Migrants from Mexico are the only other group encountered along the border at higher numbers during those months.
Many Venezuelan migrants request asylum when they enter the U.S. — roughly half resettle in Florida, according to most estimates. Texas accounts for roughly 12%.
Utah sees a relatively small number of asylum seekers from Venezuela. Between state services, larger resettlement agencies like Catholic Community Services or the International Rescue Committee, or smaller organizations like Molina’s, there are adequate resources to help migrant families who recently arrived.
But without that communication from DHS, families are showing up unannounced and confused.
That includes Alexander, Ramair and their kids who left Venezuela in August “with a broken heart and soul, leaving family for a better future,” Raimar says.
“I can’t deny it that it was the most difficult thing I’ve experienced in my life, not so much for me, but for my children ... if God gave me the power to turn back time, I would not do it again,” said Raimar.
The family ran out of food in the dangerous jungles of Panama’s Darien Gap; Alexander got myiasis, a life-threatening infection; Raimar has a heart condition that she says nearly killed her, twice.
With the Venezuelan Bolívar worth next to nothing, the family was completely broke, sleeping on the streets and constantly wet amid the region’s seasonal rains.
They entered Mexico in the southern state of Chiapas, where they say they walked all the way to Juarez, arriving in late October. There, they turned themselves in to Mexican authorities and were held in a squalid detention center, sleeping on the floor with dozens of other migrants, surviving off of a single frozen burrito each day and subjected to what they described as “psychological abuse” from authorities.
After four days, they were released. The family crossed the Rio Grande, found the nearest U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint and requested asylum. They spent three nights in a U.S. facility before officials put them on a plane for Las Vegas. By the first week of November, the family says a bus dropped them off outside of a homeless shelter along the Wasatch Front. They don’t remember which shelter.
“They would make us go to bed at midnight and would make us leave at 6 a.m., with the cold, and we would tell them, ‘please a little more, it’s raining,’ but they would say ‘no, you have to leave, nobody stays inside,’” said Ramair.
The family stayed in the shelter for a handful of days, asking for help at a chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to no avail. Eventually, they were connected with the Family Promise of Ogden, a shelter for homeless families where they were finally able to get more direction on how to navigate life as newcomers to Utah.
The kids are now in school, and Alexander found sporadic work for a construction company. The whole family was granted humanitarian parole.
Molina says Alexander and Raimar’s story became an increasingly common one this fall.
Since September, he’s been getting the same kind of calls. “Hey, I just arrived in Utah, what can I do? Where am I?” the callers, mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers barely off the bus or train, will say.
“‘Where you at?” Molina says he will reply, “and they will tell you, ‘I don’t know, I’m just seeing a sign that says Walmart,’ for example.”
The Wednesday night before Christmas, Molina says a group of five Venezuelans were dropped off at a train station in Salt Lake City. Someone told him about the group the next day, and he spent the afternoon trying to make contact with them.
“I get it, you don’t want to let the organizations know, whatever,” Molina said about DHS, “but at least let the authorities know ... so shelters can be ready, the government can be ready, the nonprofits can be ready.”
For Alexander and Raimar, their takeaways are similar to what many other migrants and visa-recipients say — the U.S. immigration systems is convoluted, understaffed and inefficient.
“I think they lack organization,” Raimar said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but the places where we were, it was not fit for kids. There’s a lack of empathy and humanity.”