“Seeking asylum has become nearly as difficult as getting here in the first place.”

Adi Talwar

The line outside 26 Federal Plaza one morning in 2015. The building is one of two locations in the city where immigration hearings are held.

Lea la versión en español aquí.

Five months ago, I arrived in New York City from Venezuela. Coming here was the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. I love my country, but, for me staying there would’ve meant facing the very real threat of being killed.

In Venezuela, I owned a fast food business and was also a college student majoring in environmental management. I wanted to fight for a better future, and I decided to raise my voice against our current government in protest. Because of this, my life was turned upside-down. I was threatened with severe punishments and death, forcing me to make the decision of leaving my home. I left behind everything I had known and loved: my relatives, my land, my culture, and my belongings.

To get to the United States, I had to trek for days through the Darien Gap, a massive rainforest that had no discernable roads. Every day was terrifying as we were forced to hike through mud-filled rocky areas, faced the possibility of encountering wild animals, and many other deadly situations. I also felt terrified at the thought of being kidnapped, abused, and even killed in this lawless region filled with criminal activity. After passing through this area, we crossed Central America and Mexico.  

After reaching the border, it took almost two weeks for me to get to New York. On arrival, officers met us and took us to a processing station where they instructed us to find a lawyer quickly and handed us a piece of paper with phone numbers. We were then instructed to hop on a bus that would take us to a church in San Antonio that was offering shelter. Taking a leap of faith, we boarded the bus since we had no other choice. As soon as we arrived at the shelter, the people working there helped us get a plane ticket to New York.

In New York, I am living in a shelter where we are provided with basic necessities including food, and I was able to enroll my children in school. While I am extremely grateful for the help I’ve received, each day I get more anxious about our future. In particular, I do not know how to move forward with the process of seeking asylum on my own. I’ve taken matters into my own hands. After searching for several days, I found Make the Road New York, which gave me a cellphone and other resources to help me navigate the city.

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For the past few months, I’ve had the same routine almost every single day. I drop off my children at school and then I begin searching for organizations that might be able to help with my situation. However, despite knocking on countless doors, I always get the same result. I have been told more times than I can count that I need to file for asylum, but that they cannot help me at this time because they are up to the brim with cases and do not have the capacity to assist me.

Where I’m staying, none of the workers appear to have clear information on what to do beyond sharing websites and phone numbers that might be helpful. Seeking asylum has become nearly as difficult as getting here in the first place. My only other option would be to pay for a private lawyer, which, simply put, is not viable for me at this time. I have been quoted anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 for representation and assistance with processing documents.

It is unrealistic to expect people to have these large sums of money readily available upon arrival. However, I am unable to get authorization to work until after filing an asylum claim, which means that I cannot save up for the lawyer I need. Once again, it feels like I’m going through a roadless rainforest with no clear paths in sight.

The first crucial step for asylum seekers like me is to actually apply for asylum, which will also unlock work authorization while our claim is being reviewed. Not to mention, applications must be submitted in a timely fashion, as failure to do so within a year from arrival will result in becoming ineligible for asylum altogether. But that is easier said than done when we have been left to our own devices.

Make the Road New York, the City Comptroller Brad Lander, and others have called for the city to put more money towards legal services to help people like me file our asylum claims. That idea makes sense to me, and I don’t understand why Mayor Eric Adams or Gov. Kathy Hochul didn’t include it in the city or state budgets this year. Furthermore, it is important to note that, all of those unable to apply within the allotted time frame will then become undocumented. The result would be an increase in people living in limbo, afraid to speak out against injustices or discrimination, just to name a few consequences.

Additionally, I heard that the mayor is distributing flyers asking people like me to consider other cities when coming to the U.S. Wouldn’t it be better to focus outreach on helping people access services they need to survive and to file their asylum claims?

I am grateful to have arrived in a city that has long welcomed immigrants—a place where people like me are supposed to feel safe. I realize that, when a lot of people come at once, it can be a challenge for the local government. But I also know that we have arrived here ready to work, start businesses, and be part of this incredible city, just like so many immigrant New Yorkers before us.

I humbly ask the government at all levels to provide the support needed so that asylum seekers can file our claims and get the support we need in the short term, so we can get out of shelters and back on our feet as quickly as possible.

Raiza Guevara is a member at Make the Road New York