New York City
After a two-month trek across ten countries – through the jungles of northern Colombia, the Darién Gap and the US immigration system – Anabel and Crisman Urbaez from Venezuela, along with their two children and dog, are now sleeping on warm beds in a Brooklyn family shelter. .
But their relative tranquility today masks a painful journey that began in Lima, Peru, after economic fortunes dried up and the family became the target of xenophobic tirades.
Like the thousands of migrants sent from Texas to Washington, D.C., and New York — by order of the Texas governor to protest the Biden administration’s immigration policies — the Urbaez family sold everything they owned and collected what they could. for the trip, including Max, their pit bull puppy.
“The economy started to decline in Peru,” Crisman Urbaez told CNN. “We couldn’t afford a lot of food. There is also a lot of xenophobia against Venezuelans in Latin America. Sometimes people insulted us, and I didn’t want that for my kids.”
In late April, the family traveled through parts of Ecuador and Colombia using vehicles for transportation. Then a four-day hike through the jungles of northern Colombia brought them to Panama.
Sebastian Urbaez, the couple’s son, told CNN that he was sometimes exhausted. In those moments, he said, Max would lie on him and lick his cheek to cheer him up.
“He was so tough. He just walked with us. He’s not just any dog. He’s like our brother now,” Sebastian, 9, said.
Determined to get Max to the United States, the family said they got him on several buses by wrapping him in a blanket and passing him along as a child.
“Costa Rica was hard to get through. When they realized Max was a dog, they asked us to get off the bus,” Crisman said. “But we kept trying.”
After weeks of sleeping on cardboard and making their way safely through Mexico, the family crossed the Rio Grande and turned themselves in to immigration authorities in Eagle Pass, Texas, on June 19.
The Urbaez family applied for asylum when crossing the border.
But immigration officials didn’t want to take Max into the country. They told Anabel to think about her children and leave the dog behind.
“But I just couldn’t,” Anabel said. “Not after everything he’s been through with our family.”
Sebastian and his 6-year-old sister, Criszanyelis, began to cry when the family pleaded with immigration officers to allow them to take Max with them, but to no avail.
“There was one officer who I believe was put in our path by God,” Anabel told CNN. “I am so grateful to him. He also cried a little. He then told me that he had taken Max to a shelter and gave me the address of the shelter so that I could go look for him as soon as we were released.”
According to Anabel, the immigration officer recognized Max from articles published by Latin American news outlets that reported on the family’s unusual journey. Mexican news channel Posta nicknamed the dog “Max, the migrant dog.”
After release, the family went to the dog shelter to pick up Max. But the shelter told them they had released Max to a man who claimed to be related to him. The Urbaez family was able to locate the man, a fellow migrant who, according to Anabel, had traveled with the family. He agreed to bring Max back if they picked him up in Uvalde, Texas.
With the help of a stranger who offered to give the family a ride, the Urbaezes were reunited with Max the next day.
They then found themselves at Uvalde Memorial Park, where Criszanyelis left toys at the memorial to the 21 victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, Anabel said.
After release from US custody, immigration officials in Texas had sent the Urbaez family to a shelter in New York City and scheduled a meeting with the immigration court.
The family, with Max safely in custody, was now determined to reach New York and face a judge.
With the help of a stranger who ran into the Urbaezes stranded at a gas station, the family took a ride to San Antonio, where they hoped to find more help.
In San Antonio, they approached an organization that helps immigrants (Anabel doesn’t remember the name of the group, but said all workers wore blue jackets).
“They helped us and arranged for plane tickets to New York City, but when they realized we had a dog, they canceled our tickets.” said Crisman.
The family told CNN that they begged the organization for help, and they eventually agreed to get the family bus tickets to New York City. The Urbaezes were en route for three days, the pair said, before arriving in New York just before midnight on June 27.
The family arrived at the Port Authority and began to search for the shelter designated by Texas immigration officials. After asking for directions several times, they found the shelter, but were refused entry because, according to Anabel, the organization only helps victims of domestic violence, not entire families.
It looked like the family would spend the night on the streets, until they struck up a conversation with the owner of a bodega on 9th Avenue and 39th Street, according to the couple.
When the owner heard the family’s story, he offered to let them sleep in his truck for the night.
“He told me he didn’t want anything from me. That he would let me sleep in his car at night and help me find a place to go the next day,” Crisman said.
The next day, the owner fed the family and let them hang out in his grocery store.
When Robert Gonzalez, a local resident and activist who frequents the store, stopped by, the bodega owner asked Gonzalez to help the family, Gonzalez told CNN.
Gonzalez, who has been helping migrant families from Venezuela for the past two years, asked the owner of the bodega to take the family to the Bureau of Prevention and Temporary Housing in the Bronx. But the family was rejected again. The shelter does not allow dogs.
Gonzalez then contacted a psychotherapist friend who helped the family start the process of registering Max as a service dog so he could join the family in shelters. Meanwhile, a volunteer took Max and the family waited for the next two days at the city’s homeless shelter to process their paperwork.
The family now lives in a shelter in Bushwick, Brooklyn. And while they finally have a warm bed to sleep in, they still feel in limbo, they said, even though they’re thankful they made it to the United States.
“The father can’t work,” Gonzalez said. “They are not allowed to work until the next court hearing, so they have to rely on people like me who are willing to help. It is worse for Venezuelan migrants because they are orphans in a sense. There is no Venezuelan embassy or consulate in the United States they can run to if they need help or a copy of a document from home.”
This fall, Sebastian and Criszanyelis Urbaez will be among the approximately 1,000 children of asylum seekers the Department of Social Services expects to enroll in New York City public school as part of Project Open Arms, a city initiative to help asylum seekers. families with academic and language-based needs.
The next court date of the family is October 2023, when they will find out if they have been allowed to work legally.
In an interview with CNN, Manuel Castro, New York City’s Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs, said the city is asking the federal government to step in and provide additional support to the city and expedite work permits for asylum seekers.
“Most of the families I spoke to want to work, they don’t want to stay in shelters. They just want to contribute to society, they just want to have peace,” Castro said.
Max has now become a certified service dog.
“We don’t see him as just any dog. We see him as part of the family.” said Anabel. “The kids wouldn’t have forgiven us if we left him.”