Darnell Gil’s Venezuelan passport is not his main concern.
“I´m trying to work as much as possible to send money for my husband who is stranded in Panama, living on the streets,” he said, with tears in his eyes.
Gil, 33, arrived in New York on September 16, on a bus that came from Texas. He fled Venezuela because of the economic crisis there and the homophobia he faced in everyday life. It took him more than a month to walk through the Darién Gap and several Central American countries and Mexico, where he saw dead bodies and had to face hunger for days.
Many other recently arrived Venezuelans are in a similar situation; living day-to-day, more worried about where they are going to sleep and how they will eat than their legal status, the migrants and advocates say. But soon, they will face significant challenges over the fight to remain in the United States. Immigration procedures, work permits and social services often require passports and national identification documents. With the Border Patrol confiscating documents en masse at the border, and the Venezuelan consulates in the United States being closed since 2019, the thousands of migrants may soon find themselves in desperate need of documents with no way of obtaining them.
“For the humanitarian protection of asylum seekers, you depend on your international credentials,” Niurka Meléndez, founder of Venezuelan and Immigrants Aid (AID) said. When they realize they need identification documents, “they ask us: what do I do? And then we stay in a cycle because we don’t know where to tell them to go. There is nowhere to go.”
In May, politicians from Texas and Florida began bussing migrants to Democratic cities around the country. Over 20,000 asylum seekers have been processed in New York City’s shelter system in the past six months.
For Venezuelans living in the United States, the consulate “is a hologram,” Meléndez said. The consulate building in New York, located on 51st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenue, surrounded by luxury stores and corporate office buildings, “is just a dead space.” It has been closed since January 2019.
The Venezuelan embassies in Washington D.C. and all consulates in Miami, Chicago, Houston, and New York are closed to the public. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro closed the embassies in the U.S. after former President Donald Trump recognized the interim government of opposition leader Juan Guaidó. For more than three years, Venezuelans living in the United States, a population of 545,234 people according to the 2021 census, have not had consular representation, as Documented explained in previous coverage. Nearly 20,000 Venezuelans live in New York, according to census data, which does not include the thousands of Venezuelans who arrived recently.
“Since 2019 there are no consulates and nothing has been resolved,” said Guillermo Nivos, a Venezuelan immigration attorney. “We find ourselves imprisoned here not knowing what to do.”
A future problem for new immigrants
Immigrants and advocates described U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers confiscating passports and national identification cards after asylum seekers crossed the border. Afterwards, many struggle to get them back and spend years living in fear and anxiety without identification.
According to CBP, these identification documents ”must be returned to the detainee upon release, removal or repatriation or maintained in the detainees’ personal property,” a spokesperson told Documented. However, in practice, migrants say they often never see their documents again.
Nivos warned that when they “confiscate identification it is a problem later to have it returned. It is a practice that is being litigated by non-profit organizations as it is considered inhumane.”
With an absent state, Venezuelans organize on social media to share information
A valid passport is needed in order to apply for an ITIN number to pay taxes, a bank account and many other vital services, explained Anthony Sosa, the manager of an Instagram account called “Comunidad Venezolana/Nueva York”, with 19,000 followers. He is one of several Venezuelan New Yorkers who organize the community on social media to help answer questions about renewing documents and a passport in the absence of a functioning consulate.
Another page, called “Venezuelan Passports – Foreign,” on Facebook has 47,000 members and was created with the purpose of guiding hundreds of Venezuelan people living abroad through the passport process or extension. On the page, many people share their experiences through posts. The closest consulates are in Ottawa, Canada or Mexico City. But this option is only possible for people who have another citizenship besides the Venezuelan.
“The government does not give you information, it only tells you to bring the appointment form. People create these groups because then in the appointment they ask for copies of birth certificates, identity documents, etc. One finds out about this in the Facebook groups”, says Luis Eduardo González.
He has been living in the United States for 23 years, but in order to renew his Venezuelan passport he had to spend more than $1,000 dollars on one weekend to travel to Ottawa. He found that most people at the consulate there had traveled from the U.S.
But, González is somewhat unique in that he can leave and return to the United States safely. Melendez says this is not the case for many Venezuelans living in the country.
“We can say, without hesitation, that we Venezuelans have no way of obtaining identification because a few do not represent us all.”