It wasn’t the first time Kervin Castro, 37, had seen death. With crushed garlic in his shoes, the Venezuelan national waded waist-deep through the mud with his two children—Kervin, 11, and Keiver, 9—and prayed. Behind him, the corpses of migrants who had previously attempted the journey rotted slowly beneath the Colombian palms: a woman, swinging from a tree, who had been sexually assaulted; two starved men, one with a broken knee.
When the trio had long lost the trail marked by blue backpacks tied to trees, they came upon an indigenous man who offered them food and water. He sat the Castros down in a handcrafted raft and they crossed to the Bajo Chiquito camp to continue on their 3,400-mile trek from the Darién Gap in Panama to the U.S. border. It was here that they heard the tales of other migrants who died in the jungle.
“In Venezuela, I was trained in personal defense in the use of short and long weapons against terrorists,” Castro said, speaking in Spanish. “Since I did not want to support the Chavista system, I was persecuted,” he said, referring to the political ideology associated with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
For months, the extraordinary influx of migrants has stretched New York City’s resources—and its patience. More than 200 shelters across the city are at capacity. For many, the announcement of President Joe Biden’s administration in September—that eligible Venezuelans may now apply for Temporary Protected Status—was met with gratitude. Of the tens of thousands of migrants in New York City that are housed by the government, some 40% may now use gainful employment to move out of the shelter system.
Some New Yorkers oppose the new policy.
“It’s terrible,” said Nadine Bilgore, 62, of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, who volunteers at the local migrant shelter at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. “It’s going to cause a lot of animosity among the other migrants.”
The journey to New York is a traumatic experience for many migrants, and that trauma has made some of them conservative, Bilgore said. The Venezuleans are perceived as having received one too many handouts from the government. “The other migrants don’t think they deserve it,” she said. “Migrants who have been in New York for more than a year don’t want to help the new arrivals because they think they’ve had it worse,” Bilgore said.
The earlier migrants are referencing the nearly 100-year-old Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, “the Great Dame of Madison Avenue,” which has been converted to a migrant shelter, as an example of how recent arrivals are coddled. Yet beneath its limestone-and-marble facade, the asylum-seekers at the Roosevelt often complain of overcrowding and lack of access to quality food. Some have even been forced to sleep outside.
Migrant tensions incubate between Venezuelans as well, said Alejandro Velasco, an associate dean and associate professor of history at New York University. Racial and class antagonism is endemic within Venezuela, he said. “Some of the older Venezuelans fault newer migrants for creating these conditions,” Velasco said. “You voted for Chávez. You created these conditions. It’s your fault it’s like this.”
Despite external resentment, the TPS announcement is a “double-edged sword,” Betania Velasquez, a Venezuelan migrant, said in an interview, speaking in Spanish. She said that while she is happy to have TPS renewed, most Venezuelan migrants cannot afford the application fee of $545 per person for most adults.
Velasquez said the high cost of the program is meant to discourage Venezuelans from applying and staying in the U.S. “There are many of us who have no money and who have arrived with nothing,” Velasquez said.
Marko Sanchez, 50, a former asylum seeker from Venezuela, said he faced a harsher welcome, having been held in immigration detention.
“Ask me in 19 months how long I went outside to breathe air,” Sanchez said. “Once.”