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Venezuelans fleeing crisis are seeking asylum in Texas

Thousands of Venezuelan immigrants have entered the U.S. in recent years, fleeing political and economic crises. Many have settled in and around the city of Houston, Texas, which is already home to a large Venezuelan-American community. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano met some of the new arrivals to learn what they went through to get here and the legal challenges they face.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The political struggle between Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and that country's opposition party shows no sign of ending any time soon. And the U.S. has become entangled in that crisis. President Trump has recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president and slapped sanctions on dozens of people in the Maduro government.

    But there's also a Venezuelan story much closer to home. Venezuelans fleeing their country have filed more than 70,000 asylum petitions in the U.S. over the past four years. Many have settled in areas that already have large Venezuelan-American communities. NewsHour Weekend correspondent Ivette Feliciano has our story from Texas.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Before moving to the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, Carlos Lozano and his family lived in Mérida, a Venezuelan city in the Andes Mountains. Lozano and his wife ran an importing business there. But their peaceful life was interrupted in 2013, as the country's economy collapsed due to hyperinflation. Lozano and his family were supporters of Venezuela's opposition party. As the economic situation continued to deteriorate, they participated in anti-government demonstrations, which were often met with violent resistance by pro-government forces. Lozano says police and paramilitaries targeted him for posting videos of the violence online. Once, he was even shot.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    When we all ran out, I heard someone say, "There goes Lozano!" That's when I was hit by a bullet here at waist level. Every peaceful protest we held became practically a war where we had to hide from the police and government forces.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But he says his breaking point came in 2016, when pro-government intruders vandalized his office.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    They came to our business and totally destroyed it. They looted it, they broke the glass, they stole absolutely all the material, years of work. They drew graffiti of weapons on the walls that said, "We're coming for you, we're coming for your family, we want you dead and that's it." I knew that I couldn't stay in the country with my wife and children anymore.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In 2016, Lozano, his wife, and two children walked nearly 150 miles to cross over into neighboring Colombia. Two days later, they boarded a flight to Houston, Texas.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    We left all our family, we left our house, our apartment, we left our friends and the belongings that we still had left. They remained in our house. Everything.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Lozano says they decided to come to the Houston area at the urging of a family friend who lived there.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    He told us that there was a Hispanic and Venezuelan community here, that Venezuelans had been coming to Houston and have been living here for years.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Since the 1980s, Venezuela — the world's largest oil reserve-holder — has had business ties with Houston's energy sector. For over 30 years, its state-run oil company owned controlling shares in the Houston-based oil company Citgo. A failed 2002 oil worker strike in Venezuela led to the firing of nearly 20,000 high-skilled oil employees. Many of them took lucrative jobs in Houston's oil industry. Dr. Luis Duno-Gottberg chairs the Latin American studies department at Houston's Rice University. He says a second wave of immigrants came to Houston after 2013.

  • Dr. Luis Duno-Gottberg:

    Everything happens more or less at the same time. Maduro comes into power, and the economic crisis that was, of course, brewing before, explodes. With that explosion — you have large amounts of people, like the largest amounts of people have left after 2013, and 2015, even increased further.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    While about 3 million people have left Venezuela in the last four years, Houston's Venezuelan population has grown. According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than 23,000 Venezuelan immigrants have settled in the Houston area since 2010. It's now the second largest Venezuelan community in the U.S., behind that of south Florida. The Houston suburb of Katy, where the Lozanos now live, has received so many Venezuelan immigrants that locals have dubbed it "Katy-zuela." Dr. Duno-Gottberg, who was born in Venezuela, notes that this latest wave of immigrants is more economically diverse than those who came before them.

  • Dr. Luis Duno-Gottberg:

    You have people from any social strata leaving Venezuela, and going not only to Houston, but everywhere. And you start seeing them in coffee shops, and– and doing not– not anymore the owner of the place, but someone working in– in the coffee shop.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Like the Lozano family, most of the new arrivals here apply for asylum claiming political persecution. Then, they face a 150-day waiting period before they can even request a work permit. In the meantime, many Venezuelan immigrants have to rely on whatever savings they have left after the expense of coming to the US. The Lozano's asylum petition has yet to be heard. After nine months of waiting, their work permits were only approved this past April. Until now, they've been living off their savings and the profits from personal belongings that friends back in Venezuela sold for them.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    Every month, things become a little more difficult, because we have practically nothing left but an empty house. But we have got a lot of help through many people.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Those people include members of Houston's Venezuelan community who have organized to help new arrivals get settled. Diana Mendt came to Houston in 1998. She says that, unlike the Lozanos, many of the more recent Venezuelan immigrants she's met have no money at all when they get to Houston. To survive, they must find "under-the-table" jobs, like construction or driving taxis.

  • Diana Mendt:

    I don't think they come with money. You know, they just–

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Why is that?

  • Diana Mendt:

    Because they have been struggling over there. So now they come with nothing, you know? They just come like this and see if somebody can help. They are escaping.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Mendt is one of the founders of Social Action-Venezuela, a volunteer organization which delivers donated goods to Venezuelan immigrants.

  • Diana Mendt:

    It's incredible how many people contact us daily. We have five, six families calling for help. Most of them, they try to find a decent job and to pay the bills, and actually we supply things for the house. Sofas, tables, dining sets and stuff like that.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Mendt and others have turned their garages into collection and distribution centers for food, clothes and other household necessities. Her group is among several organizations that accept furniture donations and deliver them to new arrivals like Cesar Garcia and his family, who just arrived here in March.

  • Cesar Garcia:

    Everything you see around here has been through these donations. We are enormously grateful. I never imagined that at this time in my life I would be here, looking for help to leave my country.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Others are trying to make Venezuelan immigrants feel more at home through religious and cultural events. Venezuelan-American Laura Celis Black organizes Venezuelan-style masses and concerts with her husband through their religious organization, which in English is called "Virtual Venezuelan Parish." She says these gatherings also serve as opportunities to collect more donations for new arrivals, which helps those still in their home country.

  • Laura Celis Black:

    We believe that the best way of helping Venezuela is to help those who are in the diaspora. Because those who live here, even if they are not working legally, all families buy a box, they fill it with food and medicine, and they send it weekly to Venezuela. So if you help a Venezuelan outside of Venezuela survive, they will help their family back home.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    But she and others also believe that the federal government needs to grant temporary protected status –or "TPS" — to Venezuelan refugees so they can live and work legally in the US. Bills granting TPS to Venezuelans have been introduced in both the House and the Senate. But neither has been voted on. In March, 24 senators — 23 Democrats and one Republican — sent a letter to President Trump, asking that he grant TPS to an estimated 72,000 Venezuelan asylum seekers. The White House has not responded. Nonetheless, many in Houston's Venezuelan community — whether recent arrivals or longtime residents — approve of President Trump's handling of the political situation in Venezuela, particularly in his recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president and his sanctions against the Maduro regime.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    President Trump's administration has been very rigid and has applied many sanctions, more than any U.S. president had ever applied against Venezuela. It is difficult, because the type of economic blockade they are carrying out on the country is affecting the people as well. They suffer. But, with the people I have spoken to in Venezuela, they are very happy that this happening, because it is a way to get the government to leave at some point.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Meanwhile, Lozano says that the biggest challenge for his family is reckoning with the loss of the place they once knew as home.

  • Carlos Lozano:

    No matter how many good people you get to know, we are not in our country, we do not meet with our people or with our families. And even though we have met very good people every day since we came — we always try to forget what we've left, but it is impossible, because it is always in our hearts, our homes, our friends. All our friends in Venezuela have emigrated to other countries.

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