Two Venezuelan Migrants: Reflections on NYC and TPS

Two Venezuelan Migrants: Reflections on NYC and TPS


Despite New York City being touted as a sanctuary city with a decades-old right-to-shelter law, the recent waves of Venezuelan migrants have been a divisive issue for the city. Mayor Eric Adams stated that the migrant crisis will “destroy New York City,” using the situation to justify his proposed budget cuts. In September, the Biden administration expanded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuelan migrants, making almost half a million migrants eligible for work authorization, including an estimated 60,000 in New York City shelters. 


The following are excerpts from a longer interview with two young Venezuelan migrants. Jose is an upper-class Venezuelan and a university student in New York. He applied for TPS designation the same day I spoke with him. His friend Luis lives with him and is finishing his degree from a Spanish university online. He arrived in the U.S. just a few days after the TPS cutoff date, making him unable to apply for TPS designation.


Jose: “One Sunday in Caracas, there is a highway called Cota 1000, which is closed for people to ride bicycles on. I went to ride a bike with my dad and at one point he got a good kilometer ahead of me and a bad guy came out of the bushes with a gun and stole everything from me. And it was at that point that the insecurity made me decide to leave and I told my parents that, you know, I wanted to go live with my uncle, who had just moved to Miami. I ended up going alone. I became independent very early on. In Miami, I had to cook for myself from the age of 15. My uncle didn’t cook anything for me, I had to cook everything for myself, wash my clothes, drive to school, literally everything. And here in New York, I also moved out on my own.”


Many Venezuelans like Jose meet the specific criteria for TPS designation.


Jose: “Today I sent the [TPS] application. And the application even asked me for bank statements proving that I have been here since July until – Well, I had to send June, July, August, until now. The passports from cover to cover scanned, my Venezuelan passport, and my Spanish passport. My student visa. I had to send all the documents. They asked me for proof from the university to prove that I live here too, my rent. I mean, the questions they asked you, if you had killed someone… And well, I applied for it mostly because I need to work, I’m in need right now and with the work permit I could be legal… Now, working migrants is another case, because the cost of applying for TPS is high. Not just anybody can afford $600 just to apply for TPS.”


While this may seem like a small price to pay for formal documentation, it is a tall ask for those migrants struggling to get by in a city reeling from a housing crisis and a cost of living crisis. In addition to this, NYC shelter policies require residents to move every 30-60 days – but having a stable address is needed to receive essential paperwork. To make matters worse, there is a massive shortage of legal support to help Venezuelan migrants navigate the complex TPS application process. 

Governor Hochul has noted that a small fraction of those who qualify for TPS have applied for it, despite all the benefits of formal documentation. In the meantime, many Venezuelan migrants have remained in the informal workforce.


Jose: “Well, the things I was doing were more or less under the table. Not everyone pays me in cash, some pay me by zelle to my account, but I never sign anything. I have friends who have been deported. We have a close friend, [Redacted], who was deported. it’s something that, yeah, I kind of got first-hand experience with and I was scared that I was going to get deported or whatever. So, I’ve been very careful with the documents and anything legal.

Luis: “I worked in delivery for a month driving a van, I got out of that job because, first of all, I mean, I couldn’t legally drive a van. I can drive a car with a license, but a car that is not commercial. But driving a van, more than anything else, was a vehicle, a company. So, if they stopped me or something like that, I preferred to leave that job for those reasons. And more than anything, they exploited you too much, because they paid you under the table. So it was a lot of trouble. I worked doing that during fashion week, I worked as a caterer and well, right now I am looking for more than just anything. To get jobs that pay you only in cash… I have not managed to get another one. I’ve been looking in Brooklyn, in Queens, in Manhattan, but we’ve gone around, we have lists of places that we can hire. Twenty places per day. We walk more than 35,000 steps a day. Looking for work. Looking for jobs.”

Jose: “And what we find is that everybody, basically, the companies that hire like this also ask you for your social [security number], even if it is the fake social, they tell you,  take out the fake social and there is no problem. And we have seen, we have realized that this is very normal here, like all the people who work illegally have their social fake and that’s how they get the checks. And also, from what I’ve realized, not many people get caught with that. The government, as long as you’re paying taxes, they don’t care.”

Luis: “I was looking to see what I could do to get something that is in cash and not have to resort to a fake social security card. The alternatives I saw too, are very exploitative on the physical level because people who do not get the fake social have to do them. Here in Queens, there is a spot in Jamaica where all the immigrants go. I mean, there are Mexicans, Dominicans, Venezuelans, Colombians. In other words, there are a few people gathered together and you see them passing by. I mean, you just go there and you know they are immigrants with their little bag, their cap, their pants full of paint, their tools, all their stuff, and you ask them, What are you doing here? and they’re looking for work, looking for a job, I mean, the only thing they do there is standing around, waiting. Someone from a van yells, “Look, we need a carpenter, we need an upholsterer, we need someone to paint the floors, and so on.”


Given all the hoops that Jose and Luis have to jump through to live and work in New York City, I asked them how they felt about their decision to come here.


Jose: “Sometimes I see my friends in the social networks in Caracas, they live a fantasy. If you earn in dollars, you can have a bodyguard, a maid, and your mansion, you live in a bubble. In other words, they are affected by insecurity, but some measures can be taken when you have more economic power in Venezuela and if you earn in dollars, you have a lot of economic power. And sometimes when I see this on social networks, my friends, all have a good time, they go from party to party. They don’t work like here in the United States. It can make you want to go back and say, well, if I had stayed, I would at least be enjoying my life or whatever. Like yes, I get to thinking about those things, because I moved here and I’ve had to work, it hasn’t been that easy either. And those are the only moments where I kind of want to go back sometimes. But in terms of opportunities, it seems to me that this country is much more – it is an open field for any industry in which you want to build your professional life, and you have many more opportunities. Not only at a professional level, but also because here the government helps people more than in Caracas. The government helps people much more. Security is something that also affects one’s day-to-day life a lot.” 

Luis: “New York is the most expensive city. People come to make money, but you have to know that you’re also going to spend what you make. I mean, not everyone has the chance. For example, if I come and I live with him [Jose], what the hell? I don’t have to pay rent, which is the heaviest thing in itself. In truth, I would like to finish my degree and I would go back. I mean, regardless of whether one is better or not, I think my quality of life there is much better than here. It’s not that one is bad or anything, but it’s like being with your family, not having to have the ease of having them cook for you, all those things I don’t have here. In other words, you have to come here to fend for yourself.”

Jose: “The opportunities more than anything else are what makes me value the United States.” 

Luis: “And it seems to me that New York has much more opportunities than other places.”


New York City is steeped in the history of immigrants who worked hard when they arrived in the United States. Today, migrants are struggling to get by, and the sluggish, complex, and needlessly expensive TPS process is doing little to remedy these issues. Indeed, the struggles of Venezuelan migrants in New York City are intertwined with the dual housing and cost of living crises. The framing of this wave of Venezuelan migrants as a ‘migrant crisis’ shifts blame away from these crises onto migrants themselves. In reality, how the city has handled housing has rendered it unlivable for many of the middle and working-class people who work here, regardless of their documentation or status.


Professor Sam Dinger, migration researcher and Gallatin professor tells me: “The question we wanna ask ourselves is this: Do we want to live in a city that is welcome to all comers, including people fleeing desperate economic situations who want to find homes, build lives, and contribute to the cultural and economic richness of our city? Or do we want to live in a city where our priority is tax breaks for those who put up Hudson yards, which benefits no one and consumes the largest chunk of undeveloped land in Manhattan?”

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