The U.S. and Mexico border wall is shown facing west from Otay Mesa, Sept., 20, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why This Matters

More migrants now than ever are living in the U.S. legally, but only through a temporary program. San Diego County resources for immigrants in this limbo period haven’t caught up.

One afternoon in late July, a group of Venezuelan migrants fought against gusts of wind to tie a blue tarp to a chain-link fence on a highway overpass in downtown San Diego. 

They were setting up camp again, after having been cleared from the sidewalk by city officials earlier in the day and turned away at one of the city’s safe sleeping sites. 

In recent months, Venezuelan migrants have joined San Diego’s growing unhoused population as a record number of them have fled their country amid intense economic and political turmoil. The dozen gathered on the overpass that day are just part of a larger group now living on the streets, in vehicles or in homeless shelters. 

They are among thousands of Venezuelans entering the U.S. under an expanded program rolled out by the Biden administration that protects some migrants, temporarily, from the threat of deportation. 

Though there’s no way of knowing how many are living in San Diego, one measure suggests that more are at least attempting to pass through. Between October and July, immigration authorities in San Diego encountered Venezuelans more than 4,300 times. That’s three times the amount encountered during the entire previous fiscal year. 

Many migrants who enter the U.S. through border communities including San Diego quickly move on to live with sponsors in other parts of the country. But that might not be as likely for Venezuelans who, compared to other nationalities, are less likely to have family or friends in the U.S. who could act as sponsors and support them financially. 

And San Diego County, like other regions around the country, lacks longer term support and resources for recently arriving migrants looking to start their lives here. 

Some Venezuelans say they are anxious to start working and secure their own housing, but they don’t yet have permission from the government to seek employment. And the application process for work permits can be expensive – $410 to apply – and difficult to navigate without legal guidance. 

Down the road, they face another challenge.

The Venezuelans have joined the 1.9 million immigrants currently in the U.S. legally, but under one of several programs that allow only temporary protection from deportation. It’s a situation some experts are calling the “twilight zone” – a state of limbo that more immigrants now than ever before are experiencing. 

Without a path to permanent residency, those immigrants could lose their legal status in a few years. If they don’t reapply or leave the country, they could fall into the U.S.’s estimated 11 million undocumented residents. 

“The options are limited unless Congress acts,” said Kathleen Bush-Joseph, a lawyer and Policy Analyst at Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration research group. 

Legal limbo leaves Venezuelans and others stranded 

International migration trends and U.S. policy explain the limbo many immigrants in the United States find themselves in.

More than 7 million Venezuelans have fled their country in the last decade — a pace that has increased since the pandemic — making it the second largest external displacement crisis worldwide, according to the UNHCR

In October, the Biden administration opened a new program allowing up to 24,000 eligible Venezuelans into the U.S. each month through a type of temporary deportation relief known as humanitarian parole. The program was expanded to Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans and capped at 30,000 individuals in January. 

Migrants from those countries must apply from outside the United States and have a sponsor in the U.S. who must submit financial documents to prove their income and assets. 

But the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, which oversees the country’s immigration programs, does not always require would-be migrants to have sponsors, such as in the case of asylum-seekers. 

Others who have been able to secure appointments at ports of entry along the southwest border through U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s CBP One app have received humanitarian parole. More than 170,000 immigrants have made appointments with the CBP One app since it launched in January, and Venezuelans are among the top three nationalities who use it. 

Migrants on parole in the U.S. can apply for work permits, but the $410 application fee can be a barrier. And the application, which can be filed online, requires immigration records, recent passport-style photos and a mailing address, creating additional challenges for those living on the streets or in unstable situations. 

Venezuelans who have received Temporary Protected Status, which protects those who arrived before March 2021 from deportation, can also apply for work permits. 

But those programs only provide temporary protection from deportation. Migrants in either program have to keep renewing in order to stay in the U.S., and neither provide pathways to long-term legal residency.  

That can put immigrants in the program in precarious situations, according Bush-Joseph. 

“The challenges that that raises for integration and how people are able to build connections to communities and start businesses and plan for enrolling children in school means that there are really broad implications for how people move forward in the country,” Bush-Joseph said. 

While Biden’s programs have provided relief to migrants facing dangerous situations in their home countries, it’s up to Congress to create pathways for legal residency long term, Bush-Joseph said.

Long-term resources lacking locally 

Locally, Venezuelans who have found themselves in San Diego County have struggled to secure housing and other resources, in some cases sleeping on the streets in tents or vehicles. 

inewsource has agreed not to name the migrants, who feared that being identified could hurt their pending immigration cases.

Just last week, Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, co-director of the immigrant support nonprofit Universidad Popular, received a call from a group of Venezuelans who were “roaming the streets, looking for support, for resources” and sleeping near a trolley station. 

After trying to find them space in a shelter, Nuñez-Alvarez used her network to find them a place to sleep for a few nights, but her organization just isn’t equipped to support those kinds of needs, she said. 

While San Diego County does offer resources for some migrants, including respite short-term shelters and free legal services for detained migrants, there’s not as many long term solutions for those who need housing, case management support or legal services. 

The county has an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, or OIRA, formed in 2021, that “serves as a bridge to help connect people to services,” according to Fernanda Lopez Halvorson, communications officer for the county’s Health and Human Services Agency, which oversees the office.

Asked what assistance OIRA has offered Venezuelan migrants in San Diego, Lopez Halvorson did not offer specifics. Instead, she provided a list of local legal service providers and homeless resources and recommended migrants either call OIRA’s office or visit its Welcome Center in National City to get help. She said migrants who cannot or choose not to stay in temporary respite shelter should try to find space in homeless shelters or pursue emergency housing options such as hotel vouchers. 

But Nuñez-Alvarez said she’s heard from Venezuelans living on the streets who have been unable to find beds at shelters. She contacted OIRA last week but as of Monday had not heard back from the office’s director, Lucero Chavez Basilio, who wasn’t available to speak to inewsource.

Nuñez-Alvarez says her organization has been frustrated with the lack of coordination coming from OIRA. 

Migrants who find themselves living on the streets downtown are also colliding with the city’s new and controversial strategies to end homelessness. 

Last week, police cleared the group of Venezuelans from where they were living on an overpass near downtown. Many of them moved into shelters or other areas. 

Even in a region that has received national acclaim for its efforts to provide shelter, medical and legal services for migrants, challenges remain. 

“What we see is the lack of availability of resources, just the system and coordination that helps us even on the ground, to appropriately connect these individuals that continue to come and are in our community and are struggling and just really facing a lot of challenges,” Nuñez-Alvarez said. 

San Diego has long had a reputation as a “gateway” city – somewhere migrants pass through quickly on their way to other destinations in the U.S. 

But for the Venezuelans arriving now, who have decided to stay in San Diego or haven’t been able to connect with sponsors elsewhere in the country, the network of resources hasn’t quite caught up, Nuñez-Alvarez said. 

“It’s just heartbreaking because we can do better,” she said. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...

Zoë Meyers is a photo and video journalist at inewsource. Zoë loves working as a visual journalist because it gives her the privilege of witnessing moments in people's personal lives and in our community that can enhance our understanding of important stories. When she's not behind the camera, Zoë...