Coming to America — The journey to asylum

Courtesy of LC A small family smiles at the camera, hopeful for the future. They are in an encampment on the Mexico – United States border waiting for the opportunity to enter the United States and apply for asylum. Photo taken over Easter weekend, 2023.

ALAMOSA — A single mother with two children is living in Venezuela. She goes to the open market where she buys enough food to last her family for a few days, if she’s careful.

She pays the American equivalent of $1 for a head of broccoli, $2 for some tomatoes and onions and $2 for a few eggs. In a country where the minimum monthly wage is the equivalent of $5.40, she has $.40 left over for electricity, water and phone service.

A monthly wage of $5.40 is less than one-tenth of the $57 per month the United Nations has set as the threshold of extreme poverty. And with inflation soaring out of control, bolivars (currency in Venezuela) will be worth even less next month.

The young woman works at three different jobs every day to support her tiny family, but she worries for the safety of her children. They’re left alone much of the time or watched by neighbors and family members. She worries that they’re so vulnerable.

But all of this is secondary to the latest and largest threat that has entered her life. A member of El Trend de Aragua, the most powerful and violent gang in Venezuela, has visited her house — twice.

The first time, he offered her money — even the false promise of a house of her own — in exchange for something she would never consider. When she refused, he said if she did not give him what he wanted, she would be killed as an example to others. The member of El Tren de Aragua is demanding the unthinkable: give him one of her children to be raised as a guerilla and indoctrinated into the gang.

She can’t go to the police; they’re paid by the gang to do nothing. Even worse, they would tell the gang she tried to report them, which would mean instant death — not just in revenge but, again, as a message to others.

She thinks of moving to another city, another state, even across the country but she knows it’s useless. El Tren de Aragua would find her — her actions cannot encourage others to do the same thing. She has only one choice, only one place to go where she will be safe and can work to support her children. She must go to the United States and ask for protection.

“This is one of the stories I hear over and over from some of my clients,” says Charles Nicholas, an immigration lawyer with a practice in Denver who has contacts in the San Luis Valley. Nicholas — who specializes in representing people from El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela — agreed to be interviewed to provide some general insight into understanding the basic factors impacting the influx of people applying for asylum in the United States.

 “They’ll leave their extended families,” he continues, “their homes, their culture, the food, the only life they’ve ever known to come to the United States. They have to. If they stay, they must either give up one of their children or be victims of violence. They have no choice but to leave. The things some of my clients have experienced in their home country is unimaginable for us here in the United States.”

The young woman and her children are now facing a journey where, like thousands of others, they will walk almost 3,000 miles, traveling through seven different countries and crossing the Darién Gap, a 70 mile stretch of jungle that connects Central America to Panama. Once considered an area that only the most prepared should travel, the Darién Gap is remote, roadless, mountainous and dangerous because of the mud during the nine month rainy season, the snakes that inhabit the jungle and the robbers along the route. 

Not all of his clients are similar to the young woman. ”I have at least two clients who are lawyers, several police officers who were cops and were calling out the system for its corruption or clients who were in the military. In some countries, the difference between police and military isn’t that distinguishable.

“But they’re being told to do things that are wrong. They saw that the last guy who refused was murdered, so they gather up their family and make a very dangerous trip to come here – a trip where a great risk involved. They’re vulnerable and exposed and may be robbed or assaulted or worse along the way, but they come because they literally cannot stay where they are.”

 Once they arrive at the southern border, different challenges await.

 “Immigration law is complicated,” he says.

Someone seeking asylum is coming to the U.S. for protection from persecution in their home country. To be granted asylum and allowed to live and work in the U.S., a person must be able to prove they have been persecuted on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or for being a member of a particular social group. 

As Nicholas explains, it is 100% legal for a person to apply for asylum. It’s been a part of federal law governing the United States since 1972. But applicants can only apply for asylum if they are physically in the U.S. — they have to come here to apply.

Because many of the countries people are fleeing are authoritarian dictatorships or extremely corrupt, the vast majority of people seeking asylum do not have documentation to enter the country. Consequently, they are detained, charged with Unlawful Entry — a civil, not criminal, charge.

“That is as far as some people go. If they have a criminal record, fraudulent documents or prior removals, they’ll be kept in detention and then returned to their country.”

But those with no problems that make them inadmissible proceed in the process and are then interviewed to see if they have “credible fear” and qualify under one of the classes.

If the answer is no, they’ll be detained and sent back to their country.  If the answer is yes, the person will be released and given a court date to appear before a judge, sometimes with a cell phone or ankle monitor.

“Those are removal proceedings with an immigration judge to make a determination if the person is removable, which they are — presumptively — because they entered without documentation. At that point, the only course of action is asylum, and those proceedings can take years.”

About six or seven months after they have submitted an application, people will receive a work permit and, in a separate mail, a social security card so that they can work. At that point, they’ll pay taxes and must abide by the same laws as everyone else until their case goes before an immigration judge. During that time, as long as they don’t commit a crime and check in with ICE as required, they cannot be removed the country.

“The term’ illegal’ isn’t accurate and it’s been used to paint this picture of criminality in people. You leave Venezuela because it’s not safe for your family. You come to the United States and apply for asylum. Are you an ‘illegal alien’? No. You’re exercising your right to seek asylum under the 1980 Refugee Act that says a country can’t send someone back to a country they came from where they might be subject to persecution and torture.

“Common sense needs to drive immigration policy. Not us and them. Not politics. There’s no open border policy. That’s just politics. There’s an immigration system that’s really dysfunctional. Everyone can agree on that. The system isn’t working.

“Until we can see everyone as human beings with the same needs and wants and hopes and fears, it’s going to be really hard for common sense to be applied, which is what we really need.”

Charles Nicholas can be reached at