Kiara longs to see the Chicago that enchanted her on TV, the sanctuary city of emerald parks, elevated trains and, she hopes, plenty of jobs for people like her.

She arrived in El Paso on New Year’s Eve with her husband and toddler after fleeing Venezuela more than four months ago. The family joined other migrants who avoided Border Patrol when crossing the Rio Grande, out of fear that agents would send them back to Mexico. Her family took refuge with Annunciation House, a faith-based organization that shelters and supports migrants and refugees.

The nonprofit is now helping Kiara and other migrants apply for asylum online, so they can  begin the process of obtaining a work permit and have a chance of recreating a new life.

“They’ll kill you if you have money, they’ll kill you if you don’t,” Kiara said while describing the colectivos – paramilitary groups, allies of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, that extort, murder and kidnap people.

Migrants have the right to request asylum and remain in the United States while their case is pending. But since March 2020, immigration officials have used the emergency health order Title 42 to immediately expel people from certain countries, cutting off this legal avenue for many.

On Thursday morning, Kiara was in a group of about 40 people who attended an asylum workshop at the Casa Papa Francisco shelter. Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, invited immigration attorney Nancy Oretskin to guide them through the process of requesting asylum. In the first half of the day, Oretskin explained what situations qualified for asylum and what records they could gather to establish their case. Molly Molloy, a research librarian and professor at New Mexico State University, gave interpretation in Spanish.

Immigration attorney Nancy Oretskin helped guide several migrants through the process of requesting asylum. (Priscilla Totiyapungprasert/El Paso Matters)

Garcia said his organization is housing close to 300 migrants right now, many of whom are stuck in limbo because they were never processed by immigration officials. Some fear they will be deported if they turn themselves into immigration authorities to request asylum.

“They’re saying, ‘We want to present ourselves. We want to get processed. We want to proceed with our asylum.’ So from that was born the idea, let’s have a workshop on asylum,” Garcia said. “It’s about enabling asylum seekers to actually access the asylum process, which is their right to do, which has been denied.”

After a lunch break, people could begin to fill out their asylum applications on paper in Spanish. Next, their documents will get translated to English. The asylum seekers will then return so a translator can go over their application for accuracy. The applicant will then fill out and submit their form online.

“If people are given the tools and they have a valid claim and they know how to proceed, they should be able to win,” Oretskin said. “There are a lot of professionals that prey on uneducated people. For example, the application is free, but they need some assistance on how to complete it.”

Attorneys often charge by the hour, and the unscrupulous ones exploit migrants in vulnerable positions. In 2013, Oretskin co-founded the Southwest Asylum and Migration Institute to provide free and low-cost legal services to asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and immigrants in detention.

Many people who want to open an asylum case don’t have the ability to obtain an attorney, Oretskin said. People qualify for asylum if they experience persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion – or political opinion someone thinks they have. Applications must be submitted in English, so attorneys need to work with translators, including in languages outside of Spanish.

Several nonprofits are providing migrants information on how to seek asylum. (Priscilla Totiyapungprasert/El Paso Matters)

At Thursday’s seminar, Oretskin taught people how to recognize if they have a case and what types of documentation they can use as proof, such as police reports and baptism records to show they’re a member of a church. Phone call records and text messages are types of evidence that asylum seekers might not think about, Oretskin said.

One participant in the workshop said he left Venezuela because of the stigma of being a gay man diagnosed with HIV, especially in his hometown where a machista culture is pervasive. Even his family was indirectly affected through association, he described. He’s also been unable to get HIV treatment, which is controlled by the state.

“I didn’t want to fight for my life over there,” he said.

Immigration courts are working through a massive backlog of asylum cases, Oretskin said. There were nearly 1.6 million people awaiting asylum hearings, according to a December 2022 report from Syracuse University. The highest number of applicants come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela. 

Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, speaks at a protest against the expansion of Title 42 at Chihuahuita Park on Saturday, Jan. 7. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Venezuelan nationals were initially excluded from Title 42, but the Biden administration expanded the policy in October after Mexico agreed to accept expelled Venezuelans. The federal government was then scheduled to lift Title 42 altogether in December, but the Supreme Court ruled it would keep the health order in place indefinitely. Many migrants from the restricted countries, who spent months living in Mexico without work or home, expressed dismay because they had been waiting to cross the border. Those who crossed without getting processed were rejected from the city’s federally-funded shelters, which only allows documented migrants to enter.

“Do people in El Paso want to see hundreds and hundreds of people sleeping on the street? They don’t,” Garcia said. “We’ve had tens of thousands of people pass through El Paso in an orderly safe manner, and now that’s not happening because the rules of the game have been changed.”
Garcia said the Annunciation House is planning additional workshops to help more migrants fleeing persecution go through the asylum process.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...