Great escape: Venezuelans head north to uncertainty, part 2

To read Part 1, click here.

It was a Wednesday at 7 a.m. during holy week in 2015 when Belkys Baez walked up to the front door of the medical clinic she owned in Aragua, Venezuela, and found the head of a corpse in the street near the front door.

She quickly called the cops. 

“It was the head of a young fighter who belonged to a guerrilla group called Tren de Aragua,” she said. “Police officers, the press, and scheduled patients were there to witness one of the most traumatic days of my life.”

Not long after that, Baez barely escaped a kidnapping attempt. The family believed it was because they had openly expressed their opposition to the regime of President Nicolás Maduro and that the intimidation would keep coming. So in September 2016, Baez, her husband Edgardo, their 17-year-old son Victor, and their daughter Maria headed to the United States, where they applied for asylum. 

High School Graduation in Venezuela (Courtesy of Amelia Orjuela Da Silva)

Their case says a lot about the difficulties tens of thousands of Venezuelans face in leaving their home country and settling abroad. According to the  United Nations, 7.3 million have left the country since 2014, and over 1 million Venezuelans have applied for asylum around the globe. Moreover, thousands have received temporary protected status in the United States, which President Biden recently extended. 

The family’s bold decision to leave everything behind and start from scratch began a journey of both uncertainty and possibility. 

Belkys Baez was born on July 20, 1966, in Aragua, while  Edgardo Roa was born on March 28, 1966, in Merida. Both graduated from Universidad de los Andes; her degree was in bioanalysis, and his degree was in mechanical engineering. Their first child, Maria Gabriela, arrived on September 9, 1994, in Aragua, and Victor came in 1998,  the same year Hugo Chavez took over the government in Venezuela.

Baez had three health centers in Aragua; all were affected by the insecurity and inflation in the country, which caused the closing of two. At the same time, Edgardo worked as a contractor for the state sugar plants in Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. 

It was about this time Edgardo started to encounter issues at work due to his political views. This ended up with him being constantly chased and made the family feel insecure. Edgardo and Belkys both expressed their feelings of despair at watching everything they had worked hard to build over the years being destroyed by the impact of socialism. In particular, they found it especially difficult to witness the critical point that Venezuela reached in 2016, affecting the economy, social, and healthcare sectors.

When combined with Belkys’s discovery of the head and the kidnapping attempt, it became clear the time to leave the country had come.

“I love my country, and I never wanted to abandon it,” said Baez. “But, all those horrible experiences were signs sent by God saying it was time to leave.” 

Victor, now 24, has had a particularly informative journey. It indicates the kinds of difficulties young professional immigrants can experience. 

Born and raised in Aragua, he has always been a smart guy with clear goals. So, even as a teenager, he pushed his family to come to Miami. Victor finished high school very young and started university. Still, there was always something interrupting his studies, and that was one of the multiple factors that made him realize there was no future for him in Venezuela.

“I just said to my parents one day that I was gonna leave the country with or without them,” said Victor. “After everything that happened to my family and the constant obstacles in my university studies, I knew there wasn’t a future for me there.”

The first year, 2016, was rough. They applied for asylum, and no family member could work legally because they were waiting for employment authorization.

The eldest child, Maria, returned to Venezuela after a few months. She had started a career in communications in Venezuela that she felt was worth resuming.

Baez expressed how hard it was to watch her leave.

“It was like missing a leg from a table,” Baez said. “We had a family project here, but she was unhappy, and I didn’t want her to suffer.” 

Victor and Edgardo managed to get cash jobs—Victor in a car wash and Edgardo in construction. 

“Of course, it was a risk,” Victor said. “I was unsure about my status and job; every day could’ve been when I didn’t have a job anymore or even worse.” 

Despite the circumstances, Victor did not stop pursuing his dreams. He took ESOL classes and improved his English while working in the car wash. He finally received his employment authorization in 2017. 

Then, he got a full-time job as a bakery clerk in a Publix near an apartment the family was renting on Coral Way and continued to pursue his career at Miami Dade College.

“It was a challenge,” Victor says between laughs. “I used to work from 4 a.m. until 1 p.m., and then I had my classes in the evening.”

Victor holding his country’s flag (Courtesy of Amelia Orjuela Da Silva)

While studying, Victor succeeded in many aspects but experienced many difficult times. 

Edgardo took a job in West Palm Beach in 2018. Victor had to become independent and start his adulthood without his family. Though difficult, the experience helped Victor grow and become more self-sufficient.

While pursuing his bachelor’s degree, he was promoted in 2020 to bakery assistant manager at Publix. The pandemic hit Miami in March of 2020, and classes went remote.

Victor had a tough year in 2021. He secured an internship at Motorola Solutions, which helped him advance his career. 

In March 2021, President Biden granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to thousands of Venezuelans living in the United States. The whole family applied in the first wave. However, the process took six months for approval. The same year, Victor had to renew his employment authorization the same year, but because of the pandemic, many immigration processes were delayed, including his work permit, which should have arrived by May 2021, but it did not.

Immigration authorities allowed many like Victor to work with the granted extensions due to the delay. However, Victor still had not received his employment authorization when the extension ended one day before Thanksgiving. As a result, he lost his dream job, the worst Thanksgiving ever.

Victor knew that TPS could be a lifesaver, but without the work permit, it was a dream that seemed far to achieve. However, once Victor’s work permit arrived, that designation would protect him for at least 18 months from the nightmare of being deported.

“TPS is a benefit that allows Venezuelans to work legally in this country without the fear of an asylum interview that depends solely on the decision of an immigration officer,” said Victor.

Currently, there are 242,700 recipients of TPS in the country. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that 472,000 additional Venezuelans will be granted the benefit after President Joe Biden extended the program this past September. 

Immigration attorney Lupe Lafont explains how TPS is helping people with affirmative asylum who are still waiting for a call on their asylum claim, just like Victor.

“TPS is basically a good protection in case you are called for an interview, and the asylum is referred to court,” she said. 

​​Though TPS was extended for many, those Venezuelans who illegally entered the country and have not been granted safe migratory status will be repatriated to Venezuela, according to the Washington Post. The first flight took off after Venezuela’s opposition and government agreed on Oct. 17, 2023, presidential elections for next year.

In January 2022, Victor received his long-awaited work permit. With determination and a desire to build his future, he resumed his job as a service operations assistant at Motorola Solutions. Not only that, he also earned his bachelor’s degree in data analytics at Miami Dade College in April 2022. 

2022 Graduation at MDC (Courtesy of Amelia Orjuela Da Silva)

Now, he is pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in business administration and business analytics. He has also been promoted to relationship and support business operations readiness analyst. 

He says he plans to move to Chicago soon and expresses that he tries to honor his country daily.

“Even though I’ve been here for more than seven years and I love living in the United States, I’m a proud Venezuelan who wants to leave my country at the top of the list,” states Victor.

Amelia Orjuela Da Silva is a senior majoring in digital journalism with a minor in social media and E-marketing analytics. After graduation, she wishes to pursue a career in the entertainment field as a writer/reporter to shine a light on stories that need to be discovered.

Kylie Hannigan is a Junior majoring in Digital Broadcasting. After her studies, she wishes to pursue a career in the sports broadcasting field.