Venezuelans are very present in the caravan bound for the United States in Mexico
After walking for two days along rural roads in southern Mexico with several thousand other migrants, Venezuelan Wilber Pires spent what was supposed to be a rest day for the caravan asking for help buying medicine for his daughter.
Two-year-old Valesca Pires was hospitalized in Huixtla overnight with a high fever. Other children in the extended family of 18 were also sick and covered in mosquito bites. Under the roof of a covered courtyard where migrants slept side-by-side on sheets spread over concrete, the adults tended to have beaten feet after traveling about 25 miles since leaving Tapachula, Mexico on Monday.
“If it’s hard for an adult, imagine it for her,” Pires said of her daughter.
Venezuelans make up a large part of this caravan, the most important of the year, unlike the previous ones. One factor appears to be a policy change implemented by Mexico in January requiring Venezuelans to acquire visas to enter the country.
Prior to this change, Venezuelans had flown to Mexico City or Cancun as tourists and then comfortably headed for the border. Many crossed from their homes to the US border in as little as four days.
Encounters with Venezuelans on the southwestern U.S. border fell from 22,779 in January to 3,073 in February, according to Customs and Border Protection. In April, the most recent month for which data was available, there were 4,103 encounters.
But the flow of Venezuelan migrants continued. Since January, more than half of the 34,000 migrants who have crossed the treacherous Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama have been Venezuelans, according to Panama’s National Migration Service.
The visa requirement drove the flow of Venezuelans into the shadows. Those who travel in the caravan are only the visible sign of those who travel through Mexico out of public view. Many other Venezuelans have likely turned to smugglers.
It was January, the month Mexico imposed the visa requirement, when Pires and members of his extended family spread across two cities in Venezuela began an online group chat that ultimately led to the decision to leave their country en masse.
Wildre Pires Álvarez, a cousin traveling with his wife and two children, said it took three months of discussion to decide to leave.
“I was making $3-6 a week,” Pires Álvarez said. “But if you ask me how far it got: a kilo of rice, a kilo of pasta, a kilo of beans and that’s my $6.” Family members complained of frequent power outages, scarcity and lack of basic services.
“The goal is the United States,” he said. “The dream is to work and be able to support more family members who have remained in Venezuela.”
The extended family of 18, including eight children, traveled from Venezuela to Mexico in 15 days.
On the first day of the three it took to navigate the thick jungle of the Darien Gap, Pires’ cousin, Eymar Hernández, passed out.
Flor de los Ángeles, Hernández’s 11-year-old daughter, cried in memory of her unconscious father.
“He had a problem, and they had to help him, give him fluids, air,” she said. “He was really bad in the jungle, and it was really difficult for me because I was scared of what was going to happen.”
The family applied for asylum in Tapachula and received appointments in July to begin the process. They said they didn’t have enough money to be able to wait that long in a city where jobs and affordable housing are scarce.
Jenny Villamizar, Hernández’s wife, said the constant uncertainty, the overwhelming fear that they won’t be able to continue, has been terrible.
“It’s a terrible anguish not knowing what we will be able to accomplish, what we will be able to do,” Villamizar said.
Negotiations between the migrants, their defenders and the Mexican government continued on Wednesday. Recently, the government has dissolved other caravans offering to move migrants to other cities where they could legalize their status more quickly.
Finding consensus on the management of migratory flows in the region was a top priority for the representatives gathered this week at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.
Jesús Enrique González, a Venezuelan migrant traveling with 10 relatives, including his seven children, said the money he earned as a butcher at home was no longer enough to make ends meet with ever-rising prices.
So they left and traveled for two months.
From Panama, González’s children have been crucial in helping their father carry on. He fell while crossing the Darien Gap and broke his left foot, an injury that requires surgery, which he was unable to reach.
The 53-year-old alternates between crutches and a wheelchair pushed by relatives and friends as the family continues north. They were the last migrants to reach Huixtla on Tuesday.
“We fought until the end to stay in our country because everyone loves their country,” González said. “But seeing how everything was a struggle and we never achieved a goal, we decided to leave.”