Five Venezuelan men walked together in the dark, trying to find the address US immigration officials had given them. It was almost midnight in downtown Sacramento, a city they had never heard of and an unexpected destination.
One of them, Juan, 29, who asked for his real name to be withheld out of fear of jeopardizing his asylum request, had expected to end up in New York. He’d spent more than a month on the journey from Venezuela to the US-Mexico border.
But right then, he just wanted a roof over his head – something an immigration agent promised him before his release from a detention center in Eagle Pass, Texas.
The group spotted the address but before they could even knock on the glass door, a tall man in a blue uniform stopped them. It was Derek Smith, a 36-year old security guard, and Juan quickly showed him the government documents that included the address. Smith didn’t speak Spanish, but he recognized the despair in their eyes, he said.
“I pulled out my translator and I went from English to Spanish. I wrote, ‘This is not a shelter, this is an office building.’ They responded, ‘Yes, but we were sent here’ and kept showing me their paperwork,” Smith said.
“So I told them, ‘Come back by 7am and I’ll have more information.'”
He indicated a nearby park. So they walked there, where dozens of homeless people slept on the ground or in dirty tents.
At that, one of Juan’s exhausted group fell to his knees and cried. They roughed it, but Juan couldn’t sleep and asked himself all night what he was doing there.
Other asylum seekers are being bussed to New York without necessarily being their choice, or Chicago, or Washington – or Martha’s Vineyard, in moves by the Republican governors of Texas, Arizona and, lately, Florida to make a statement about immigration.
But Juan mystifyingly ended up in the California state capital. He’s part of a mass exodus fleeing danger, hunger amid economic collapse, political oppression or all of the above in Nicolás Maduro’s crisis-torn, authoritarian Venezuela.
His journey started, he said, at his home in Táchira, in north-west Venezuela, when he refused to join the rebel National Liberation Army, a Marxist guerrilla group that operates along the border with Colombia.
Armed guerrillas threatened to harm his family if he didn’t leave Táchira within 20 days, so on August 7, he said goodbye to his 14-year old daughter, other friends and relatives and set out for the US with the equivalent of $80 in his pocket – an amount he said he struggled to make in three months.
Juan went by bus to Medellín, Colombia, then north by bus and boat until he braced himself to walk across the mountains of the infamous Darién Gap, roadless jungle connecting Panama with South America that tens of thousands of migrants risk their lives each month to traverse .
“It’s hell. You see corpses. Desperate people steal food from other people. At night, when you are camping, you hear people screaming for help,” Juan said.
After a stretch of four days without food and money, Juan earned some money by cleaning restrooms to pay for a boat ride from Panama to Costa Rica. It then took him about two weeks to reach Guatemala City, where someone helped him buy a bus ticket to southern Mexico and from there he eventually reached Nuevo Laredo, on the border with Texas in late August.
“We were practically about to cross the Rio Grande when we were kidnapped,” he said. Drug and smuggling cartels prey on migrants near the border, often shaking them down for money. He was let go after two days, threatened with death if he came back into town, he said. He fled further back into Mexico, then clung to the top of a freight train known as La Bestia and ended up back at the border 100 miles further west, where he safely crossed the treacherous river and surrendered to US authorities at Eagle Pass.
There, he exercised his legal right to seek asylum. For the next three days, Juan slept underneath a Mylar blanket inside a frigid border patrol cell that migrants often refer to as a coldor ice box, before being transferred to a detention center then bused to a shelter in San Antonio.
On September 15, Juan was told by city officials at the city’s migrant resource center – the same place the Venezuelans taken to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month said they were lured from – that there was a plane to board.
“They [immigration officials] asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I said, ‘New York.’ But when they gave us the paperwork, it said Sacramento,” Juan said. Out of money and options, he took the ticket.
On the plane, Juan and the other four Venezuelans he’d met were discussing how they would get from the Sacramento airport into town. All were broke. But a female passenger overheard the conversation and, Juan said, offered all the cash in her purse: $24. It was enough for a bus ride, 11 miles to downtown Sacramento, where they ended up in the park.
At 6.50am the following morning, the men went back and Smith, the guard, who was about to end his shift, gave them another address.
After traversing seven countries, walking three more miles in shoes riddled with holes was okay, and the address turned out to be the Sacramento food bank & family services non-profit. There was breakfast available. And someone turned up from NorCal Resist, a group of activists who offer legal, educational and housing services to immigrants.
“This was the first time people showed up in Sacramento with paperwork for a shelter that doesn’t exist,” said Autumn Gonzalez, a volunteer attorney helping with asylum claims.
Juan was baffled as to why the very last stretch of his journey had been so stressful.
“We were trying to do things right, like the paper says, but we found out that the address was not right. Why would they do that to us, if we come with such good intentions?” Juan told the Guardian.
NorCal Resist put Juan up in a hotel, the safe, warm bed at last. He told the Guardian that, whether he ends up in New York or staying in Sacramento, he is optimistic about his asylum claim. Gonzalez agreed that Juan has a “strong claim”.