Adding to the calamity of having fled a dreadful humanitarian crisis back home, the growing community of Venezuelans in New York is experiencing a new dramatic obstacle due to the closing of their country’s consulate in Manhattan.
This article originally appeared in El Diario
Translated and condensed by Carlos Rodriguez
Adding to the calamity of having fled a humanitarian crisis back home, the growing community of Venezuelans in New York is experiencing a new dramatic obstacle due to the closing of their country’s consulate in Manhattan.
Technically and legally, this group of Venezuelans “does not exist.” In any case, they have no way to prove they do.
Since March 2019, they are the only Latino community in New York City without a way to carry out consular paperwork. Among other things, this affects their ability to renew or extend passports, which foreigners need to certify their nationality and identity. Particularly for those in the midst of the process of regularizing their immigration status, not having a passport significantly complicates things.
A recent informal survey conducted on social media by the Venezolanos en New York website found that 80 percent of the 142 comments they collected referred to problems related to not being able to obtain driver’s licenses, open bank accounts or perform basic “survival” tasks.
Of the remaining comments, 15 percent spoke about how people were “scammed” while attempting to make such arrangements before March 19, 2019. The date marked the day in which many celebrated the transfer of the New York consulate – considered the “crown jewel” of Venezuelan diplomacy – to the government of Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. recognized as interim president.
Still, the joy was short-lived.
After a symbolic takeover and the “removal” of the diplomatic staff appointed by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, whom the Trump Administration considers a “usurper of power,” the consular office, located next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, has been closed and inactive.
Activist Robert González, president of the Diálogo por Venezuela organization, has collected numerous complaints illustrating how this “diplomatic limbo” has “consequences beyond description” for the group, which he says are being denied the human right to identification.
“As we say back home, the cure has been worse than the disease. Our community feels abandoned and also betrayed. Not that we had exemplary diplomatic services under the usurper government, but now the policy is silence. This is a useless office that is only generating expenses for the country,” said González.
Due to the Venezuelan government’s technical and operational unwillingness to issue documents to its citizens, the countries that recognize Guaidó as president decided on May 21, 2019, to assume that all expired passports would remain valid for another five years without the need to file additional paperwork.
Most Venezuelan citizens we interviewed in the tri-state area say that this “relief decree” has been worthless to them. For those who have lost their passport, in particular, it continues to be impossible to access the mayor’s municipal identification program, IDNYC, let alone obtaining a driver’s license, which New York State approved for everyone regardless of immigration status last year.
Josefina Gago, from Caracas, lost her passport three years ago, an event that, she says, turned her entire life “upside-down.”
“Venezuela’s political disaster follows you wherever you go,” she said. “I lost my document and, before the interim government, they were charging me $1,500 to get a new one. When Guaidó allegedly took power, I was hopeful. However, it is worse now. They can’t do anything.”
González, the activist, explained that, even with the “automatic extension,” thousands of his compatriots whose passports are expired are stopped at airports, unable to open bank accounts, and even face obstacles to enroll in educational institutions.
“We have been living through the painful experience of having lost Venezuelans living in New York to COVID-19 and having no way to obtain a death certificate. Not to mention aid programs,” said González.
Desperate stories such as these abound. Venezuela native Wendy Arias posted on social media that, back in February 2018, she paid the Venezuelan identification service (SAIME) to make an appointment to renew her passport in New York. She never got a date. In October, she had to request an extension because there were no materials to issue the document.
“I signed into SAIME’s website again, paid for my extension, and then the Guaidó thing happened in January. They closed everything here, and I was left without my extension. I was ‘legally’ scammed,” said Arias.
Héctor Arguinzones is the founder of the Venezuelan and Immigrants Aid coalition (VIA), which has for four years offered support to immigrants from the South American country living in the city, and has witnessed firsthand the impact of this situation.
“This year has been the hardest one for our community due to COVID-19. It is painful to see many people trying to regularize their immigration status and lacking valid identification, which is the first step to any process. It is practically like denying you of your existence,” he said.
Arguinzones mentioned cases of people who end up “trapped” in the U.S. because of the complicated nature of immigration policy. Even though they could move to a third country, they are unable to leave because they lack a certified document proving their name and place of birth.
“For a long time now, hundreds of people who escaped the criminal regime of Nicolás Maduro have been denied of this right on top of the humanitarian crisis,” added Niurka Meléndez, another leader at VIA. “In some way, this diplomatic orphanhood and lack of information put us in an even more delicate position. They are suffocating those of us who have chosen to leave seeking safety.”
Analyst Ángel Arellano, author of books on the Venezuelan diaspora and editor of Dialogopolitico.org, said that Venezuelans around the world have been facing great difficulties in obtaining identification documents since 2012. Second only to Syria, the Venezuelan exodus is one of the largest human migrations in recent times, and is unprecedented in Latin America.
“Unfortunately, despite its efforts, the interim government has been unable to offer identification document services in countries where it has been recognized,” he said
The director of consular affairs of the Venezuelan Embassy in the U.S., Brian Fincheltub, told El Diario that some consulate services “are available,” albeit remotely due to the pandemic.
“To our team, the New York consulate is a great advantage. It is our own building, and things will be much easier there when we are able to reactivate our full services. In the rest of the country, the regime left behind much debt for unpaid office space rental,” said the official.
Asked whether the Venezuelan community in the tri-state area will be able to rely on services such as obtaining and renewing documents, Fincheltub said that it will not happen in the near future.
“Beyond the consulates, this depends on the SAIME, which is not in our hands. They had stopped processing documents or extensions in New York long before the start of the interim government. There was a huge corruption scheme operating there. We have complaints from people who paid large sums of money for paperwork and were swindled,” said the official.
Fincheltub said that a path has been planned, beginning with the five-year automatic extension for expired passports, known as Decree 006.
“Our team is available through our website 24 hours a day to help our citizens with agencies that do not accept the automatic extension. In such cases, a nationality certificate is issued. We also have national travel certificates available, an emergency document that can be used to fly back to Venezuela through a third country,” he said.