It took Yoaibimar Daal about a month to make the more-than-3,000-mile trek from Ecuador, where she was living, through the jungles of Central America to New York City. It took her a matter of hours to become the most virally known Venezuelan immigrant in America.
In early September, Daal stood in Times Square, her disabled son in a baby stroller, and pressed record on her phone as she half-screamed and half-cackled: "New York!"
"La marginal en Nueva York!"
In Venezuelan slang, la marginal roughly translates as "ghetto woman," so the brief video seemed to be a celebration of Daal's arduous journey. The video quickly went viral on YouTube, but not everyone was celebrating with her. Indeed, many Venezuelans living in the United States mocked her for her less-educated pronunciation.
"Now I understand why the United States is closed for Venezuelans," a man tweeted with a subsequent video of Daal dancing in the subway. A Venezuelan worker at O'Hare International Airport tweeted another video of Daal dancing salsa in Times Square captioned with "The Statue of Liberty left the group." "Are these [the Venezuelans] the US Embassy gives visas to?" a woman asked. "And they deny it to the Decent Venezuela that just wants to vacation?"
Daal's videos (she has posted more than 110 of them) have brought into the open the tensions and class prejudices between some of the 500,000 Venezuelans in the U.S. - many of them well-off and conservative - that had arrived mostly by plane in earlier migration waves and the poorer and undocumented wave (known collectively as the "Venezuelans who crossed the Darien" because of a notoriously perilous spot on the Panama border through which they had to pass) that started crossing into the U.S. in 2021. But the internecine anger between some long-time residents and the new arrivals is complementing the political frustration conservative Venezuelans feel toward the Biden administration over its sometimes-contradictory immigration policies and approach to the Venezuelan regime; it's another reason why once-blue parts of South Florida have flipped for Republicans.
Even during the height of Venezuela's humanitarian crisis between 2014 and 2018, according to Customs and Border Protection data, apprehensions of Venezuelan migrants at the southern border never passed 80 people a year. But between January 2021 and September of this year almost 240,000 Venezuelans like Daal arrived at the southern border, applied for asylum and were admitted pending resolution of their cases. But then, in October, pressured by the rising influx, the Biden administration expanded the use of Title 42 - a policy that expels migrants to Mexico, denying them a chance to seek asylum - to include Venezuelans. It also announced a humanitarian parole to bring in a maximum of 24,000 Venezuelans if they have a sponsor and can pay air travel expenses. Seven thousand Venezuelans have already moved in through the parole program and around 5,000 have been deported. Recently, a federal judge struck down Title 42. Fifteen states are going to court to maintain Title 42, but there is growing concern that a new wave of migration will follow once Title 42 disappears as expected on Dec. 21. Mexico has already found almost 5,000 Venezuelan migrants crossing its territory as the suspension approaches.
Venezuela's current economic crisis is driving the exodus. According to the consulting firm Ecoanalítica, 50 percent of the country has an income of $100 or less a month while a basic monthly food basket surpassed $400. But this dire situation has not engendered much sympathy from many Venezuelans already in the U.S. who believe the new arrivals are tarnishing the image of Venezuelan expatriates. It's a dynamic that echoes how Cuban-Americans who fled Castro in the 1960s disparaged the influx of thousands of poorer migrants, known as Marielitos, who swamped South Florida during the 1980s.
The pre-Darien Venezuelan diaspora is mostly made up of middle- and upper-class Venezuelans who left during the past 25 years after the rise of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro's authoritarian socialist governments, making them the Latino community with the highest education level in the United States - even higher than the U.S. average. This community settled mostly in South Florida but also in Texas, where many former oil workers that were fired when Chávez purged the country's national oil company found new jobs. They also have an average wage that is higher than the average wage of Hispanics in the U.S. In fact, Venezuelans who speak English well or very well (around 80 percent before the Darién crisis) have higher average wages than the whole average U.S. population. While seemingly leaning conservative, Venezuelan-Americans are divided politically. During the last midterms, two Venezuelan-American state representatives were chosen: Carolina Amesty in Florida, a Republican, and Democrat Adam Zabner in Iowa. A former Miss Venezuela also ran for Congress in Texas under the GOP and was defeated.
For Francys Chacón, a lawyer who moved in 2017 from Venezuela to Manhattan, it's not a matter of social class but of being law-abiding. "I won't go to your home without your permission, but because you invited me or allow me," she says. "It's not the correct thing." Many of the new migrants, she says, are bringing an attitude of "viveza criolla" - a concept in some South American countries that describes taking advantage of others. "Coming here and believing the government will give you everything, will give you a home, will give you food," she says, "That they are entitled to that benefit." For her, Title 42 will not stop the influx but "it's a way of slowing down the situation."
Nevertheless, she believes "disinformation" and "ignorance" - including promises of immediate asylum or Temporary Protected States for those that cross the border - are pushing many of the migrants to come. "I have acquaintances who say: 'Why do I need a visa? It's the same as entering, arriving at the border, and applying for asylum.'"
Reactions like Chacon's are sometimes worsened by an online conspiracy theory that asserts that Maduro is releasing criminals from jail and sending them to the United States in migrant caravans, as Fidel Castro did during the Mariel Boatlift. While the conspiracy - first promoted by far-right site Breitbart and then magnified by some House Republicans and Donald Trump - is baseless, it feeds on Venezuelans' anxieties about gangs like Tren de Aragua that have followed migrant caravans to many South American countries. Remarks such as Trump's, which described the migrants as "vicious criminals" released by Maduro, have not been generally rejected by Venezuelan-Americans - a voting bloc that tends Republican - but rather "they have said: 'Oh, look how they [the new migrants] are making us look!'", says Raúl Stolk, a Venezuelan lawyer based in Miami who owns Caracas Chronicles, an English-language news site.
For Stolk, Venezuelans in Miami have a "a lot of social consciousness about what's happening in Venezuela" and, moved by "compassion and connection" to their country, they tend to donate aid to Venezuela, participate in activism and help new migrants. Still, he says, "you hear the mad speech that Maduro is sending inmates." Stolk says he's also seen some Venezuelans saying, "it took me so much to come here legally, the good way, and these people are getting it for free!"
The new migrant crisis has opened many discussions between Venezuelan migrants. When Texas Governor Greg Abbott bused Venezuelan migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris' house and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flew them to Martha's Vineyard to pressure Democrats on border policies, Venezuelan social media erupted. Many decried the measure as "dehumanizing." Others celebrated DeSantis' move. For Diego Scharifker, a former Caracas city councilor who in 2020 founded the pro-Democratic advocacy group Venezolanos con Biden, seeing Venezuelans celebrate "the use of Venezuelans themselves as a political tool" is "painful."
"There were never these comments when Venezuelans arrived by plane, who were light skinned or looked middle class or upper class," says Scharifker. "Because these look low class, they call them thugs. It's painful to see how Venezuela's polarization is now also affecting the migrants arriving in the U.S."
Venezuelans are "a political narrative that Republicans have [been] known to use," says Stolk. He believes the busing of migrants and the inmates conspiracy theory will not move Venezuelans away from the GOP but rather reaffirm their position. "Now there's a lot of [Venezuelan] people that used to say: 'Close the border and don't let them in,' saying 'Look how horrible, Biden closed the border and is not allowing Venezuelans in,'" Stolk says.
Yet, for some conservative Venezuelans, Republicans are not the only ones at fault of using Venezuelan migrants for political ends.
Biden's "ghost flights" (ICE's flights taking undocumented migrants to other parts of the country) precede Abbott's buses, says Astrid Mattar, a conservative Venezuelan lawyer who moved from Caracas to Boston in the mid-1990s. Liberals' "hypocrisy levels are horrendous," she says. Mattar, who sometimes vacations in Martha's Vineyard, says that despite signs welcoming immigrants and refugees, the locals immediately moved the Venezuelan migrants sent by DeSantis to a nearby military base on Cape Cod. Afterwards, she drove to the base and told staff she is a Venezuelan legal and medical interpreter who speaks Spanish and English and could help the migrants. "They didn't allow me in," she says. "They [liberals] say: Come, we'll welcome you. But when you come, we'll kick you out, especially if you don't vote for us."
For Mattar, Biden's deportation of Venezuelans is another way of using them "to look good with [anti-immigration] American citizens." "What this administration is doing is so dirty," she says, "there's an element of evilness."
Biden has been recently criticized by many Venezuelans and Venezuelan-Americans for easing some sanctions on Venezuela, to allow a major flow of oil, and for swapping two of Maduro's nephews imprisoned since 2016 - the narcosobrinos, accused of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States - in exchange for seven Americans imprisoned in Venezuela. "Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. care a lot about foreign policy," says Daniel Di Martino, a conservative political commentor and Manhattan Institute graduate fellow who moved to the United States from Caracas in 2016. Venezuelans, for example, strongly supported Trump after he sanctioned the Maduro regime and supported the opposition in its attempt to reestablish democracy. Doral, a heavily Venezuelan city in South Florida, had two of the three largest pro-Trump swings in Miami-Dade County between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
For Di Martino, "all the worst fears turned out [to be] true," he says, referring to Trump's campaign "warnings" that Biden would reapproach the Venezuelan regime. Yet, Scharifker says, Trump's maximum pressure strategy on Maduro didn't work, and a military intervention in Venezuela is impossible. Thus, "there's no doubt that the way to achieve political change in Venezuela is through negotiations," he says. For him, the Biden administration won't be "naïve enough" to relax enough sanctions "before Maduro's government shows enough goodwill to negotiate."
Title 42 has also provoked strong emotions among Venezuelans. While Mattar believes the American immigration system is historically "broken" and that supporting stronger border and migration policies is "a matter of survival," she also thinks that Biden's "open-border policies" are motivating Venezuelans to come and then they are "unfairly" not allowed in. "They have sold everything, they have left their families," she says. "In the process of crossing borders, jungles and rivers they have lost their children, or their lives, and the women have been raped or trafficked."
"We are experiencing a disorderly massive migration process at the southern border and that is not a good thing for the United States," Di Martino says. For him, "we cannot simply have a policy where anybody who claims asylum is let into the country." Yet, he believes the Venezuelan parole program - which he considers "misguided" in its design, as it only allows 24,000 Venezuelans while more than 20,000 were crossing the border monthly before Title 42 was expanded - should have a rolling admission instead of a migrant cap. In his view, this would reduce risky migrations trips and allow migrants to wait at home until - and if - they are accepted by the United States.
Scharifker, of Venezolanos con Biden, also believes the parole should be expanded to include more than 24,000 Venezuelans. "In the end you are recognizing that these migrants are escaping a regime that violates human rights," he says. "There should be a different treatment."