DONNA VELASQUEZ was miserable in Venezuela. She lived with more than a dozen relatives in a small, packed house in La Vela de Coro, a port city in northwestern Venezuela, one of the poorest parts of the country. A 26-year-old single mother raising a small child, she remembers constantly feeling hungry and distressed. Every morning she would go to a stall at the beach to sell arepas (a local food made of ground maize dough), making very little money even though she worked from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Her situation was not unique. Even though the country has the largest oil reserves in the world, four of every five Venezuelans live in poverty. They struggle to cope with triple-digit inflation, a dearth of food and medicine, and political corruption. Over a fifth of the country’s residents have left, leaving Venezuela teetering on the edge and creating one of the biggest refugee problems in the world.
That refugee problem, and others like it elsewhere around the world, is becoming a problem for Massachusetts. It first came into focus a year ago when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis used state tax dollars to fly nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. That political stunt attracted national and international attention, but the influx of migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, and other countries has continued and picked up steam since then.
Under the Massachusetts right-to-shelter law, the state is required to provide shelter to families with children and pregnant women. The state is struggling to keep up with the demand, both from arriving migrants seeking shelter and people already in the shelter system who are having problems finding their own housing. Gov. Maura Healey has declared a state of emergency, called up 250 members of the National Guard, and appealed to the federal government for help, so far without success.
Velasquez has become one of the many faces of the shelter crisis in Massachusetts. She is now a single mother of two who lives in a state-funded shelter. She speaks only Spanish and has no immediate job prospects, but she continues to believe that her move to the United States was the right one and that she and her children will have a better life here than in Venezuela.
“We’re poor in Venezuela, we’re extremely poor,” Velasquez said. “I had to leave to fight for our lives, for my son, for my mother.”
GETTING TO US NOT EASY
By 2021, most of Velasquez’s relatives had already left the country to look for a better life, and two of her siblings who had migrated to Curaçao, a Dutch Caribbean island, sent her money to launch her own escape trip.
Velasquez and her son, Dilham, first tried their luck in August 2021 in Bogotá, the capital of neighboring Colombia, which has become home to some 2.5 million Venezuelans. Velasquez lived with a friend and developed a relationship with a Dominican man she met in Bogotá. But she wasn’t able to find a job and make ends meet. After five months, she and her son returned home and several months later – on June 23, 2022 – she and her son set out for a new destination – the United States.
Venezuela is at the northeastern corner of South America. To get to the US, Velasquez and her son traveled through Colombia, where her Dominican partner joined them, and continued into Panama, crossing the dangerous Darién jungle, where they spent five days navigating a treacherously muddy terrain while trying to avoid poisonous snakes and insects, human traffickers, and the dead bodies of those who previously failed to make it out.
“We got to this lonely beach,” she said, but her voice suddenly breaks and tears flow to her eyes. “I didn’t imagine it would be that horrible.”
Once out of the Darién jungle, she faced the next challenge: a national strike in Panama. With no public transport functioning, Velasquez marched by foot through most of Panama. From Panama, she trekked across the rest of Central America — through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala – and then crossed into Mexico, and made her way to Texas.
She walked many miles in the burning sun and heavy rains, and took countless packed buses. “There were times where we didn’t eat. And times where we slept in the streets,” she said. Money was always an issue. In Guatemala, she paid “coyotes” (people who earn money by smuggling others), and in Nicaragua gangsters bribed her. When she finally arrived in Mexico, she had to take a five-day break in the capital city to wait for relatives to transfer more money for the trip.
Wading through water above her hips, she crossed the Rio Grande in Acuña, a Mexican border city, arriving in Texas on the last day of August 2022. She applied for asylum in the US but her partner was unexpectedly deported back to the Dominican Republic; she hasn’t seen him since.
Her only contact in the US was her partner’s mother in Lawrence, so that was where Velasquez went.
She hooked a ride on a free bus to Washington, DC, (she doesn’t know who paid for the bus, but Gov. Greg Abbott has sent many immigrants from Texas to other states) and then took a train to Boston. She arrived vomiting and feeling badly. When she finally got to see a doctor, she received unexpected news: she was pregnant, carrying the daughter of her now-deported Dominican partner. She lived with her partner’s mother for a while in Lawrence, but the arrangement didn’t last. So after a brief stint on the streets, she and her son moved into a family shelter in Dorchester. On March 26, she gave birth to a baby girl at Boston Medical Center.
LIFE IN THE US
Velasquez sits for an interview in a café in Dorchester along with her 5-year-old son, Dilham, next to a pram with her sleeping three-week-old baby girl. She chased the American dream, but as for so many other Venezuelan migrants, it hasn’t been anything like what she imagined.
She and her kids live in one room and share a kitchen and bathroom with another migrant woman from Puerto Rico. Velasquez said the woman is nice and calm, but other residents in the shelter are dealing with addiction problems and mental health disorders.
“In this refuge, you don’t have tranquility, you don’t have peace,” Velasquez said. She has no privacy and feels nervous about living with her kids next to strangers with all sorts of issues, crammed in a small space. There is often a scent of marijuana, but she’s just happy that she’s no longer on the streets with her kids. ”It’s been hard,” she says. “I’ve cried a lot.”
Velasquez dedicates most of her time to taking care of her baby girl. She brings Dilham to school every day and picks him up at the end of the day. School is important to both Dilham and her. “He must learn a lot, and he’s a smart kid,” Velasquez said proudly.
Dilham had missed school on the long two-month trip to America, Velasquez’s relief was enormous when he started at a local school in Dorchester. Velasquez hopes to find a job when her baby gets old enough to go to daycare. She asked a teacher at Dilham’s school for permission to sell empanadas to the kids and their parents there.
Most Venezuelans struggle as they arrive in Massachusetts, says Denise Rincon, founder and director of the Venezuelan Association of Massachusetts, a non-governmental organization supporting Venezuelans in the state. Rincon teaches Spanish at a local school, but she dedicates all of her spare time and energy to helping fellow migrants – just like she supported Velasquez when she gave birth at Boston Medical Center.
Rincon barely pauses when she speaks, always in a hurry. “Sometimes I don’t have time to attend to all the emergencies,” she said. Rincon knows most Venezuelan migrants in the state, and she doesn’t stop mentioning cases of Venezuelans struggling – a 3-year-old girl with autism, a 10-year-old boy with a heart condition. “It’s horrible,” she said.
Rincon thinks Venezuelans need to adapt and learn when they arrive in Massachusetts. It’s a different culture, she said. Venezuelans struggle to learn English, particularly the ones without education who barely know how to read and write in Spanish, she said.
They need to learn that to move forward they must sacrifice, she says. “If you have to eat twice a day, you eat twice a day,” she said. “Don’t spend the money on food three times a day because then you will no longer be able to pay a lawyer and solve your legal situation.”
Rincon said more Venezuelans have arrived in Massachusetts since June last year, and the last wave of migrants has been particularly vulnerable. They arrive with absolutely nothing. “No money, no contacts, no lawyer, nowhere to live,” she said.
As more Venezuelans settle in Massachusetts, more may arrive due to family or friend connections here, like Velasquez did. Another important pull factor is Massachusetts’s world-class hospitals. “They want to come to Boston because they’ve heard the hospitals are good,” Rincon said. “And many arrive with terrible health issues.”
Most migrant support programs in Massachusetts are driven by volunteer efforts like Rincon’s association. Rincon says that although individuals often step up to help with urgent migrant needs, Venezuelans generally feel abandoned. “Remember, we have no embassy, we have no consulates,” she said, consequence of broken diplomatic ties between the US and Venezuela since January 2019.
A DISTORTED PICTURE
Many migrants go on the journey toward the US with a distorted picture of what it’ll be like, said Alisha Holland, an associate professor of government at Harvard. She said migrants receive plenty of information, and most of them know what Title 42 is (a public health law used to expel immigrant), that the US dollar is strong at the moment, and that there’s a tight labor market in the US. “But they often have a lot of bad information, too,” Holland said.
Migrants will often hear out-of-touch stories like “the UN will fly you out in a helicopter if you get stuck in the Darién,” Holland said of the danger-filled area of Panama that migrants must cross. Often there’s some truth to it, she said, “like, it happened to someone once.” But then the stories get blown up, out of proportion.
Rincon said Venezuelans, who come from a society with heavy censorship, rely on social media platforms like WhatsApp and TikTok to stay informed. They’ll hear influencers and YouTubers say that everything is free in the US, that here they’ll be given everything, that it’s easy, Rincon said.
Many are disappointed when they arrive and find that life in the US is not as easy or glamorous as they had hoped, she said.
Velasquez said she searched on the internet to learn about life in the US before leaving Venezuela. She was convinced it would be a better life. While it’s not what she expected, she still says it’s better than what she comes from. It can only be better than the situation in Venezuela, she insists.
Americans have generally been nice to her and her family, Velasquez said. “Massachusetts received me,” she said. “I have gotten a lot of help from the government, from people, the association for Venezuelans in Massachusetts, the church. A lot of people helped me.”
The plan, she says, is not to stay in the United States. Rather, Velasquez hopes to get a job and work in Massachusetts for a few years, then return to Venezuela with more resources. Her dream is to buy her mother, who is asthmatic and suffers from high blood pressure, a house back in Venezuela. Velasquez is still far from that, but said she will make it.
“I miss Venezuela so much,” she said.
Mie Hoejris Dahl is a Danish freelance journalist based in Latin America. She reports on politics, economics, migration, environment, and conflict in the region. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.