Venezuelans are increasingly looking to the United States as a safe haven due to widespread anti-government protests, which have shaken the country since February.
Violence associated with the protests has left at least 41 people dead and thousands injured. And it has sparked a rise in the number of middle-class Venezuelans who emigrate to the United States. But people affected by the conflict still face significant legal hurdles in migrating north. Last month, the U.S. embassy in Venezuela announced it was limiting visas due to a lack of staff, and the situation may not be resolved anytime soon.
Street violence was already a problem in Venezuela, and the conflicts surrounding the demonstrations have only made matters worse. The protests have created daily clashes between students and National Guard troops.
“I got out of my car to try and help people, and the National Guard attacked us,” said 31-year old Karen Lemoins. “That was the breaking point for me. That day I said I have to leave my country.”
Lemoins fled Venezuela on February 21, leaving her husband and family behind.
“I want to have a family. I want my kids to go to a good school. I want to be able to take them to the park with peace of mind and in Venezuela it’s just impossible,” she said in her temporary apartment in Doral, Florida, a suburb that sits west of Miami.
More than 24,000 people died in violent homicides last year, according to the National Observatory of Violence. And Caracas, the capital, is one of the deadliest cities in the world. Lemoins’ husband has been robbed at gunpoint twice and her mother-in-law was kidnapped in front of her house.
“They’re killing people in Venezuela now for a pair of shoes,” she said. “We’re talking about a pair of shoes costing more than a month’s salary.”
The cost of living also makes daily life difficult for the average Venezuelan. The minimum wage in the country is 2,900 bolivares per month, or approximately 480 U.S. dollars at the government´s fixed rate. But in real life, U.S. dollars trade for 10 times as much on the black market, which means that Venezuela's minimum wage actually hovers around $50 per month.
With inflation at 56 percent last year and frequent shortages of medicines and staple foods, it is easy to see why many Venezuelans want to flee.
"They feel the need to seek another venue where they can progress as professionals,” said Ileana Arias Tovar, a Venezuelan immigration attorney based in South Florida. “[A place] where they can walk in the street, anytime, where they can go to the supermarket and buy what they need.”
Arias Tovar has been dealing with Venezuelan families that want to emigrate. She said her workload has increased nearly 70 percent because of the amount of people that are looking to come to the U.S. There is a lot of misinformation regarding visas for Venezuelans, so her firm has even opened up a hotline and holds weekly Skype conversations open to anyone.
One of the rumors that has been circulating is that the U.S. is offering political asylum or general amnesty in place due to the protest-led violence.
“There has not been a law or any regulation that will target the situation at this point,” Arias Tovar clarifies. “If a Venezuelan wants to apply for political asylum they could. But they have to meet the necessary requirements.”
Sitting in her sister’s apartment in Florida, Karen Lemoins is hoping to build her case for asylum.
She was a pharmacist and used to work in the health ministry back in Venezuela. She said a couple of years ago they forced state employees to attend pro-government rallies and when she refused, she got fired.
“I got a letter ‘thanking’ me for my services. I knew it was because I wasn’t in favor of ‘Chavismo’ in Venezuela,” she said. “After that I couldn’t find a job anywhere in the government. That’s when my problems started.”
But until her case is reviewed, Lemoins will live in the U.S. on a tourist visa until August of this year. For now, she’s making ends meet crashing on a family member’s couch and living with the small savings her husband sends her from home.
“The goal is to find a legal pathway to succeed and bring my family here, to a safe country,” said Lemoins.
Like her, most Venezuelans arrive in the U.S. on tourist visas and then stay legally — or illegally if they can’t secure a lengthier visa. Florida is the primary destination, since it’s only three hours away by plane.
Around 19,800 Venezuelans arrived at Miami International Airport from February 15 to 28, 2014 according to the Associated Press. That’s up from the 18,500 who arrived during the same period in 2013.
The cities of Doral and Weston in Florida have become hotspots for Venezuelans in the U.S. Most are young professionals or young parents looking to open their own business. According to the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Venezuelans that come to the United States have a bachelor's degree. That's double the average education level for U.S.-born Hispanics.
It is uncertain how many Venezuelans will stay and it is also hard to calculate just how many are permanently migrating due to the student protests and the current crisis.
But the United States is not making it easy for Venezuelans to come. Three weeks ago, the U.S. embassy stopped issuing first-time tourist visas in Venezuela. They claim they don’t have enough personnel to handle the high demand, due to the expulsion of consular officials by the Venezuelan government.
“Until further notice, we are able to offer such appointments only in emergency situations,” the embassy said in a statement last month.
Waiting in line for an immigrant visa is still a new experience for Venezuelans. As an oil-rich country, Venezuela has traditionally attracted immigrants from other Latin American and European countries.
Even young immigrants like Lemoins can’t help yearn for the country’s prosperous past.
“I think of Venezuela so much, what Venezuela used to be, all the opportunities that Venezuela gave me,” said a teary-eyed Lemoins. “I never thought in my entire life that I would have to leave my country behind.”
This story has been updated from a previous version.