Nine Venezuelan family members landed at the Salt Lake City airport with nowhere to go. This is their journey.

The family trekked through the jungle, waded across the Rio Grande and rode to New York before landing in Utah’s capital.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yulianny Escudero with her 1-year-old granddaughter, Aranza, in a Salt Lake City motel on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

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After evading the jaguars and snakes, enduring a detention center and time on the streets, trekking through the jungle and busing to the Big Apple, they found themselves in Salt Lake City.

Late on a freezing February night, Eduardo Marchena and Yulianny Escudero’s family of nine landed at Salt Lake City International Airport from New York City.

They had no connections in town, knew little English and had nowhere to go.

“When we arrived, we didn’t know what to do when we got to the airport,” Marchena said in an interview conducted in Spanish. “I didn’t know where we had to look for shelter.”

Members of Marchena and Escudero’s family left their home in Venezuela in September, seeking asylum and greater stability in the United States. In Venezuela, they struggled to access essentials such as baby formula and couldn’t make enough money to feed their family.

Their story reflects the chaos and confusion caused by the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border and highlights how a patchwork of policies leaves communities across the country scrambling to provide services while those who seek refuge may be left to fend for themselves.

A harrowing journey

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yulianny Escudero listens as Eduardo Marchena talks about the trip to the U.S. from Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2024.

Before Marchena and Escudero even made it to the U.S., the trek from Venezuela to the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras came with its own scary obstacles.

In the jungles of southern Central America, the family members recalled seeing jaguars and trying to dodge snakes. At other points along their journey, they say, corrupt police and government officials extorted them for what little money and few valuables they had.

The family members persisted in search of greater opportunity so they could send financial support to relatives back home, where money is hard to come by. Economic instability has fueled a surge of Venezuelans fleeing the South American country.

After wading across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras to Eagle Pass, Texas, on Dec. 18, they spent more than a month sleeping in migrant shelters, hotels and on the streets.

Immediately after crossing the border, they spent four days in a detention center while they waited for initial processing. There, Marchena said they were temporarily separated from the kids.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency responsible for running those centers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Uncertainty and confusion

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) One-year-old Aranza and 3-year-old Aaron stay entertained in a Salt Lake City motel room on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

After being released from the center, the family members spent time in a shelter and on the streets in San Antonio before hopping on a bus to New York City that they say was paid for by the Texas government — part of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s initiative to send migrants to other states.

Marchena and Escudero said they were given three options of where to go: New York, Chicago or Denver. They chose New York because a friend said there was help available there.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management, which runs the busing program, did not reply to a request for comment about the family’s experience.

The family members stayed in shelters and saw social workers in New York for about a month before accepting the plane tickets to Salt Lake City. Marchena and Escudero said they do not know who paid for their tickets to the Beehive State.

“One day, they [a social worker] called me on the phone,” Escudero explained, “and they said I had a paid flight to Utah.”

It remains unclear what organization or program paid for the tickets.

A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency tasked with detaining and deporting those who enter the country illegally, said ICE did not pay for the tickets.

Because the couple, their children and extended family are seeking asylum, they are residing in the country legally.

New York City has offered to pay for people staying in shelters there to travel to other cities and countries since at least October. The mayor’s office did not respond to questions about whether the family’s journey was paid for through this initiative.

‘Playing with people’s lives’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) One-year-old Aranza with her mother, Yurjanys Leal Escudero, in a Salt Lake City motel room on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024.

When the family members touched down in Utah’s capital Feb. 10, they didn’t know where to go. They had to ask someone at the airport where they could get shelter for the night.

“I thought that someone arriving here would be directed to a shelter, like in New York,” Marchena said. “It is something that I never imagined.”

They quickly found relief from the frost after connecting with Unsheltered Utah’s executive director, Wendy Garvin, who secured them hotel rooms for that evening and the following days.

In December, when Marchena and Escudero entered the country, almost 63,000 Venezuelans were apprehended along U.S borders, the second-highest monthly total ever after more than 72,000 were arrested in September.

Garvin said she and other shelter providers in the Salt Lake Valley have noticed an uptick in Venezuelans coming to Utah.

“The permanent service providers have all been telling me,” Garvin said, “that we’ve seen a huge increase since December of [asylum-seekers], mostly Venezuelan, a few from Mexico.”

West-side Salt Lake City Council member Alejandro Puy, who immigrated from Argentina, helped the couple and their family with translation the day after they landed here.

He was critical of whoever paid for the family’s tickets without adequately informing the asylum-seekers of what would be available to them in Utah, or reaching out to service providers here to tell them that the family was coming.

Puy said he was looking into how the family got to the Beehive State.

“It is just disheartening,” he said, “that we are playing with people’s lives like that, that we don’t have a solution across the country for this sort of crisis.”

Despite facing a treacherous odyssey wracked with uncertainty, the family is finding its footing in Utah. Two of the kids were already in school as of Tuesday, and the family has found a more stable living situation as the search for a new home continues.

Marchena, meanwhile, said he wants to stay here and work to provide for his family.

“They [the family members] are happy here,” Marchena said. “The only thing I ask, here in the country, is that we have good stability and that they can let us work because I want to work.”