Understanding the Backgrounds of Venezuelan Students & Families
As we always say, what happens on the border and in immigration news impacts what happens in our classrooms. The past year is a perfect case in point! You may have noticed that the countries of origin of immigrants crossing the U.S. southern border have been changing. In FY22 (10/1/21 – 9/30/22), for the first time in history, more Venezuelans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans were encountered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection than migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Wow!
The fastest population growth among Latinos in the U.S. has come from Venezuelans over the past decade. From 2010 to 2021, the Venezuelan-origin population in the U.S. increased 172% to 660,000, which is the fastest growth rate of any group! In addition, in FY22 alone, there were 188,000 border encounters with Venezuelans. With more and more Venezuelans entering our classrooms, let us take a closer look at this population.
Why are Venezuelans Leaving
Educators may wonder, why are so many Venezuelans leaving their country? Venezuela was once one of the richest countries in Latin America, particularly because of its oil. However, President Hugo Chavez died in 2013 and then the economy collapsed in 2014. Living conditions deteriorated and soon people were struggling to access basic necessities like food, healthcare, and shelter. As people grew desperate, violence increased. In addition, the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, has been accused of election fraud, human rights violations, and running an authoritarian government. The U.S. government has imposed sanctions for over 15 years in response to activities of the Venezuelan government and Venezuelan individuals.
Of particular interest to educators is what the schools are like in Venezuela. Unfortunately, just like the overall economy, the education system has been failing since even before the pandemic. This includes:
Lack of teachers: Many teachers have left due to low pay. The average teacher salary is currently $20/month (500 Bolivars), which is not even enough to be able to eat regularly. Teachers are currently leading protests and demanding higher salaries and fewer university students are going into teaching. Other educators have left the country. Some estimates show that between 2018 and 2021, 68,000 teachers left the country. In some cases, parents have stepped up to teach, despite little to no training.
Failing infrastructure: Classes are often cancelled because of power outages and water shortages. Gas shortages make it difficult for teachers to get to work. Furthermore, many schools are in disrepair and are taken over by squatters or used by militias.
Lack of supplies: Students and educators often can’t afford basic supplies like notebooks or school uniforms. In addition, schools often are not able to provide meals or even water to students.
Transportation: Most schools in Venezuela do not provide transportation for students to get to school, so most students walk. Some students may be able to access public transportation, while others even hitchhike.
Check out this video (streaming above and also at this link) from UNICEF to get a glimpse of Venezuela's failing education system, even before the pandemic.
With all of these “push factors,” over 7 million Venezuelans have fled to other Latin American countries since 2015, such as Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Ecuador. Some families were able to find work and enroll their children in school, though usually not without challenges, such as hefty fees or discrimination. However, once COVID began in 2020, many of these Latin American countries faced negative economic impacts from the pandemic, so many Venezuelans were on the move again and attempted to come to the U.S. This is important to note because many of the Venezuelans in our schools haven't lived in Venezuela for at least a few years.
Journey to the U.S.
The journey to the U.S. is over 3,000 miles and involves crossing through eight countries. The most difficult part of the journey is typically the Darién Gap, which is 66 miles of jungle that connects Colombia and Panama. Some people are able to pay for a roughly $400 boat ride that reduces the amount of time they must walk; however, most can’t afford the boat and must walk the entire thing which takes at least 7-10 days. It is literally hell on earth and involves difficult climbing, raging rivers, and deep mud as well as the threat of armed robberies and sexual assault. Many people who get injured are left behind to die. Most migrants see human remains on their journey.
A number of journalists have accompanied migrants on this route and documented what it’s like:
Chronicling the dangerous trek through the Darien Gap (ABC, 2023)
'An endless nightmare': migrants cross the Darien Gap jungle to reach US (AFP, 2022)
The Darién Gap: “The Most Dangerous Place I’ve Seen” (Doctors without Borders, 2021)
What migrants face as they journey through the deadly Darien Gap (PBS Newshour, 2020)
As noted in the videos, it is not just Venezuelans making this journey. Many people from around the world make their way to South American countries that don’t have strict visa requirements and then do this same trek. For example, this is how many Cubans and Haitians have come to the U.S.
Once Venezuelan or other migrants get to Panama, they typically register with the United Nations and stay at a reception center for some time. Many organizations, such as Doctors without Borders, are there helping to provide basic food and medical care. Then they wait weeks or sometimes months for transport to Costa Rica, which is provided by the Panamanian government for roughly 100 migrants per day.
Once they arrive in Costa Rica, they are on their own again and still have five more countries to go through until they get to the U.S. southern border. Venezuelan and other migrants use the same options that Central Americans have, such as hitchhiking, walking, riding buses, or on top of trains. The options depend on how much money one has.
What happens when Venezuelans arrive at the border?
This depends on when the Venezuelan individual or family arrived at the border. This is because immigration policy has been frequently changing. Many of these changes revolve around Title 42. This is an old public health law that was invoked in 2020 when COVID began. In theory it was to stop the spread of COVID; in reality, it has turned into three years of expelling migrants and denying individuals their right to claim asylum.
For Venezuelans who arrived at the border before October 2022, they were let in because the U.S. was not able to apply Title 42 to them. The reasons for this are 1) The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Venezuela so cannot deport people back to there and 2) Mexico was not yet accepting expulsions of citizens from Venezuela. So there was nothing left to do except parole them into the U.S.
For Venezuelans who arrived in or after October 2022, the situation was different. The U.S. was able to expand Title 42 to Venezuelans because Mexico began accepting expulsions of Venezuelan citizens. So currently (as of March 2023), anytime Venezuelan adults or family units arrive at the border, they are expelled to Mexico. Note: unaccompanied minors are excluded from Title 42.
The only Venezuelans who are being let into the country are those who are coming in on a new program (since October 2022) that offers humanitarian parole for Venezuelans via airport entry. This program requires having a financial supporter in the U.S. so it generally prioritizes those with ties to the U.S., not to mention the program is easier to access for those with financial means. In addition, it restricts their legal right to seek asylum.
Title 42 is set to expire (for all groups) on May 11, 2023 and the government has proposed a controversial new rule for how individuals will be able to request asylum, which could significantly impact the number of Venezuelans able to come to the U.S. The government is accepting public comments until March 27, 2023 and anyone (including educators!) can comment.
Finally, many Venezuelans were impacted by the policies of Texas and Arizona to bus migrants to Northern cities, such as New York and DC, but this is beyond the scope of this article. However, please note that Immigrant Connections has done trainings for educators in receiving cities.
What Teachers Can Do
Just like with any immigrant or refugee population, the best things teachers can do are:
Learn a bit about why and how particular populations are coming to the U.S. What are the “push” and “pull” factors for each group? This will give you a general understanding of whether students you receive from certain countries may be dealing with trauma, poverty, or other challenges.
Learn a bit about the education systems of the countries where your students are from so you can be prepared to meet them where they’re at. Will they likely be on grade level? Are they SLIFE?
Pay attention to policies related to immigration and refugee resettlement. It is true that they change quickly (and hopefully Immigrant Connections is a helpful resource for this!) but if a large population is headed your way (i.e. Afghans, Ukrainians, Venezuelans, etc.) you can be better prepared to support those students and families.