José Albornoz has only been in the United States for a few weeks, but things are moving fast.
He’s already traveled cross-country twice, landing in Montana, where a friend got him a construction job. And he learned a few things about the immigration system along the way.
“I’m undocumented”, he says in Spanish, “but I’m not illegal”.
The 40-year-old Venezuelan crossed the US-Mexico border illegally in September near Eagle Pass, Texas, on foot and with few possessions: his passport, a cell phone and a change of clothes. He surrendered to the United States Border Patrol and was released back to the United States a few days later.
Albornoz does not have a work permit. But he has permission to be temporarily in the United States, which protects him from deportation.
This immigration purgatory — legally present, but unable to legally work — is where many Venezuelan migrants now end up. Hundreds of thousands of people have been released in the United States with a notice to appear in immigration court or instructions to register with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they arrive at their destination.
But the next steps are not so clear.
Migrants in New York are ‘desperate’ to work
“They’re not getting the things they need, the information they need,” says Jay Alfaro, social services and partnerships manager at the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York. “They don’t know their rights, you know, they don’t even know how to get around the city.”
The church operates a soup kitchen a few blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The queue in front of the church is already long at 10 am on a sunny but cool October day. Since August, church volunteers and staff have been serving hundreds of Venezuelan migrants with food and clothing every week.
Alfaro says they all want to know the same thing.
“Their first question is, ‘Where can I find work?’ ” she says. “Legally, you have to get a work permit. You know, it’s New York, so we know there are workarounds for that. But I tell them, ‘Listen, you have to be careful. “
Until recently, migrants from Venezuela could not be deported to Mexico under pandemic border restrictions known as the Title 42. Thus, immigration authorities release tens of thousands of Venezuelans each month to the United States, where they can seek asylum.
Experts say the current wave of Venezuelan migrants, unlike Central American or Mexican migrants, generally do not have social networks in the United States, friends or family who can help them find their place in the United States when they arrive.
The immigration authorities have just launched a new program which will allow up to 24,000 Venezuelan migrants to live and work legally in the United States. But the only way to get in is to apply from abroad.
This means that it will not help the over 180,000 Venezuelans who have already been released in the United States within the past year. Since April, more than 20,000 migrants have sought refuge in New York City alone, according to city officials.
Many of these migrants could eventually obtain a work permit, but only after formally applying for asylum. It’s not a quick or easy process. In many cases, it takes years. And migrants say they can’t afford to wait.
“My family lost their home,” says Enderson Orlando, “and I’m desperately looking for work here, and I haven’t found anything.”
Orlando flashed his phone and on the cracked screen appeared a video of flooding and destruction in his hometown of Las Tejerías, Venezuela. Devastating floods followed heavy rains earlier this month.
Orlando, a skinny 26-year-old, is one of hundreds of Venezuelan migrants — all men — staying at a shelter in a former armory in Brooklyn. Dozens of men hang around outside the armory at a busy intersection and crowd curiously around reporters.
Alexander Rosa Freites, 40, says he worked as a massage therapist at his home in Coro, Venezuela, about six hours from Caracas. The father of five says he’s struggling to find work because he doesn’t have the right papers.
“When you try to find work in construction, they ask you for OSHA certification,” says Freites. “If you don’t have that, you can’t work. If you don’t have a social security number, you can’t work.”
Venezuelan migrant starts over in Montana
3000 kilometers away, in Montana, José Albornoz has found what all migrants outside the refuge of New York want: a stable job.
His original plan was to travel to New York and meet a friend from Venezuela. But when he got there, his friend had construction jobs planned for the two of them – in Montana. Albornoz says he felt ecstatic.
“Let’s go, I’m ready,” Albornoz told his friend. “I came here to work.”
Albornoz is still trying to make sense of his new environment. He says life in the United States is radically different from life in Venezuela. It still adapts to the idea of buying on credit rather than cash, for example.
“When you get here, you’re lost,” he says. “You land in a completely unknown world.”
Albornoz earns $20 an hour, he says — enough to support himself and send money to his wife and three daughters in Venezuela.
But Albornoz also encountered obstacles. He still lives in a hotel room, which he shares with his friend, because he needs a credit history to rent accommodation to him. And he couldn’t open a bank account because his Venezuelan passport has expired.
Venezuelans cannot renew their passports in the United States because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. The closest place Albornoz can renew his is in Mexico, he says. He knows it will be difficult to renew his passport, but he quickly tells himself that it is something he can overcome.
“There are many opportunities here. If you come here ready to work, you have many opportunities to pick yourself up,” Albornoz says.
In Venezuela, Albornoz owned a small business that makes bully sticks – a dog treat made from a certain part of the bull. He sold his bully sticks to an exporter and was surprised to find out how expensive they were in the United States.
“I don’t know if I was getting scammed in Venezuela or if customers were getting scammed here,” he jokes, noting that bully sticks cost at least 25% more here than he was selling them for. in Venezuela.
Albornoz dreams of one day restarting his bully stick business in the United States. He knows it will be a challenge. But that doesn’t bother him.
“I am ready to work very hard to earn a better quality of life,” he says.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.