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A wave of arrivals puts Charlotte's migrant community to the test

Karina and youngest son walking home in Kannapolis.JPG
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Karina, a migrant from Venezuela, walks with her youngest child along a road in Kannapolis. The family traveled nearly 5,000 miles to arrive in North Carolina.

The Latin American Coalition in Charlotte began encountering a challenge earlier this year. Around June, dozens of newly arrived migrants from Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua and Cuba started appearing at their Central Avenue office. Many were facing homelessness and needed a place to sleep.

The Latin American Coalition in Charlotte began encountering a challenge earlier this year. Around June, dozens of newly arrived migrants from Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua and Cuba started appearing at their Central Avenue office. Many were facing homelessness and needed a place to sleep.

The coalition isn’t a shelter, explained its director José Hernández-Paris, but the staff have been searching the community to find emergency housing.

“We are reaching a point in which our capacity has been topped,” Hernández-Paris said. “Our fear is that any moment we might get a busload versus that trickle of three families per week or so that require extensive case management.”

So far, housing solutions have come from within Charlotte’s immigrant community.

“It is very difficult for migrant families to see a migrant family homeless, to see them in the street. Individuals call our office and they're offering space, a room or even their backyard,” he said.

“We have people who are in tents in people's backyards just to make sure that they're not in the street. So, it's helpful, but it's not sustainable and it's not healthy.”

Latin American Coaltion.JPG
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
The Latin American Coalition helps welcome immigrants to the Charlotte area. But the director says they've never seen so many emergency cases from migrant families.

What the Coalition is experiencing is a symptom of a regional crisis. Economic, humanitarian and political turmoil is driving migration from places like Haiti, Cuba, Ukraine and Venezuela.

A record 2.4 million people were intercepted this year at the U.S.-Mexico border. To get there, many migrants trekked from as far as South America — or farther. And some are being sent far from the border to places like Charlotte.

In a four-month period, from June through September, the Coalition processed more than 750 new migrants, about 40% of them under age 18.

One of those individuals was Karina, a woman from Venezuela, who had spent the previous night sleeping in Charlotte’s Greyhound bus station with her husband and three children, ages 5, 10 and 15.

“I started to pray to God to give us a light,” she said. “I know not everything is easy, but please give us a light, at least for the children.”

By the time they reached the Coalition’s office, Karina said the family was stressed. They were on the tail end of a nearly 5,000-mile journey from South America, and they knew very little about Charlotte.

Greyhound station in Charlotte.JPG
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
For many migrants, the Greyhound bus station is their first impression of Charlotte.

How Karina and her family ended up at the Coalition, homeless and unsure of where to go, is a long story.

It starts in Colombia, where the family had lived for about two years.

Hard times in South America

With the economic impact of COVID-19, surviving in Colombia became difficult, Karina said. But she couldn’t imagine returning to Venezuela, where an ongoing humanitarian crisis has led more than 7 million people to leave — mainly to Colombia, Peru and other parts of Latin America.

“Things in Colombia began changing, but they weren’t as complicated as in Venezuela,” she said. “In Venezuela, everything is complicated, wherever you look.”

Karina and her family’s departure from Colombia — and their trek across often dangerous terrain to the U.S.-Mexico border —is part of a larger trend, explained Greg Weeks, a Latin American studies professor at UNC Charlotte.

“The shift now is really Venezuelans who had such serious problems in other Latin American countries that they first went to, that they've decided to leave those places and come to the U.S.,” Weeks said.

A recent United Nations report found 3 out of 4 Venezuelan migrants in Latin America lacked adequate food, shelter, employment or medical care. In Colombia, about 30% of Venezuelan children weren’t enrolled in school.

“Latin American economies are not strong. So, any group of migrants, especially in large numbers, is going to be viewed as competing for jobs, competing for services, taking scarce places in schools,” he said.

“My impression was that initially there was a sense of a humanitarian feeling toward Venezuelans. But as time went on and the economies were stagnant, that also changed into more hostility.”

Trauma along the trail

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported about 190,000 encounters with Venezuelans this year. That’s nearly four times the amount in 2021. Before that, Venezuelan border apprehensions were low — in large part because the journey from South America is so treacherous.

Weeks compared the experiences of Venezuelans with the dangers long faced by Central Americans migrating through Guatemala and Mexico.

“Take that which we already know and then add more distance and dense jungle that's full of mud and mosquitoes and every other thing you could think of — lack of fresh water,” he said. “For Venezuelans, it's just even worse.”

Before the trip, Karina had heard stories from other Venezuelans of kidnappings, serious injuries and illness in the jungle. When her husband first suggested the idea of trekking to the U.S., she didn’t want to go.

To protect her mental health, she tried not to think about the risks or watch videos posted by other migrants. The alternative meant returning alone to Venezuela with the children.

So, when the time came, she packed their bags with essential items, such as documents and food, and they made their way to the Darien Gap, the roadless stretch of mountains and rainforest that connects Colombia and Panama.

“I saw pregnant women, small children crying,” she said. “And I heard things.”

Along the trail, there were awful stories of kidnappings, robberies and rape. But she said her family was lucky. No one was hurt or fell ill. Their worst experience, she said, was running out of food.

“I looked around, hugged my children and thanked God for protecting us,” she said.

Getting to the border

Despite the extreme risks, Venezuelans are likely to continue migrating in sizable numbers, Weeks said.

“My sense is people are still figuring that odds or the risk is worth it,” he said. “There really is no great answer if economic conditions in Venezuela don't improve.”

The number of migrants walking the Darien Gap has grown steadily since the start of the year, according to Panamanian government data. In January, fewer than 5,000 migrants made the journey. In October, nearly 60,000 did.

About 70% of people crossing into Panama on foot are Venezuelans. But migrants from as far as the Caribbean, Africa and Asia have chosen to take this irregular route as well.

Many will remain in Latin America. Others will end up at the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico.

rio bravo 2.jpg
Karina shared this image of another migrant family, who crossed the Rio Grande River with her group.

“This is a totally different circumstance,” said President Joe Biden at a press conference in October.

“What’s on my watch now is Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. And the ability to send them back to those states is not rational. … We’re working with Mexico and other countries to see if we can stop the flow.”

When Karina and her family arrived this summer, the Biden administration hadn’t yet announced its new policy to expel Venezuelans at the border to Mexico. So, they were allowed to cross.

For Karina, Mexico was one of the scariest parts of the trip. They feared being chased and captured by police or groups that target migrants. At a certain point, Karina’s family joined a caravan of what she estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 other migrants.

“They didn’t stop us,” she said. “They let us transit to where we needed to go.”

The caravan was a way to feel protected and avoid arrest until they arrived at their destination across the Rio Grande River.

They were intercepted in Eagle Pass, Texas, which has become a more popular border crossing. More than 100,000 Venezuelans were stopped there this year.

She said Border Patrol has eyes everywhere, so they were spotted immediately while crossing the river.

In Eagle Pass, they informed border agents that they didn’t have any friends or family in the U.S. who could take them in. So, they were assigned a city — Charlotte.

Karina said they weren’t provided any information about support services in Charlotte. But they heard most cities would have a shelter.

Border agents gave Karina a phone with GPS tracking, she said, to verify her presence in the Charlotte area. She also received an order to appear in Charlotte Immigration Court, one of the strictest in the nation.

To get to Charlotte from the southern border would require acts of charity and trust in strangers.

That’s coming up in Part 2 of this series.

WFAE has compiled a list of area resources for Latino Immigrants here.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.