How a Utah shelter helped Venezuelan men settle in the US, and what it says about our immigration policy

Feb 22, 2023, 7:00 AM
(Jeremy Harmon)...
(Jeremy Harmon)
(Jeremy Harmon)

SALT LAKE CITY — When a man, woman, child, or family is granted refugee status and allowed to move to the United States, the odds are they will be placed right here — because Utah is a refugee resettlement city and has been since 1980.

But someone doesn’t just show up in Utah with refugee status. It’s a process that begins with the U.S. government. And by the end of the process, a person is set up with housing and job prospects.

So why was a group of travel-weary Venezuelan men recently dropped off at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, a homeless center?  How did they get there? 

A bus in the night

Upon your arrival, if you mosey half a block down from the corner of 4th and 4th in Salt Lake City, you’ll come across an inconspicuous brick building with a lone red staircase that leads to a single red door. Just above is a faded yellow cross that reads “Jesus Saves”.

Related: Expert joins Inside Sources on women accessing homeless resources

The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake is a homeless shelter and has been around since 1972, helping men at the bottom of the barrel find their footing. Once upon a time, it looks as though the faded yellow cross above the red door may have glowed neon bright when the sun set — acting almost like a beacon of refuge for people whose nights in a bed are few and far between.

It was in front of this inconspicuous red building that a bus pulled up one night a couple of months ago and dropped off 15 to 20 Venezuelan men. There was no warning, nor explanation.

Hear author Hugo Rikard-Bell with Inside Sources Host Boyd Matheson.


Don Nicholson is the emergency services director for the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake. He’s responsible for initial intake, organizing beds, and determining necessary services for any man who shows up seeking shelter.

“I was in my room resting when I got the call. Someone said, ‘we’ve got a ton of refugees’,” Nicholson explained.

“The challenge for us is we have a limited number of spaces, but luckily … when the weather is good enough a lot of the time a lot of our regular guests will stay out in camps so when (the Venezuelan men) showed up, we actually had room for everyone.”

Related:  Help the homeless in Utah by shattering myths, says Utah advocate

The scene was chaotic, to say the least. The men had clearly traveled a long way and only spoke a few words of English between them; “yes,” “no,” “hello,” and “thank you.” For Nicholson, this posed the biggest challenge. Communication.

“[We had to use] Google translate,” he said. “I have a couple of people that stay here as guests who do speak Spanish and are bilingual. When I had them, they would help us all out.”

What now for these Venezuelan men in Utah?

A point of pride for The Rescue Mission of Salt Lake is the rehabilitation services they offer. If an individual is struggling with substance abuse or is unable to find employment, the shelter has facilities and relationships in place to help overcome these problems.

Steve Spiess is the shelter’s job placement coordinator. He said the group of men was very motivated to get work and move on.

“We helped them get what they needed; work boots and clothes … and some job leads, and they pretty well took it from there,” Spiess said. “After giving them job leads the next day, they’ve got a job and they’re out working. We see them leave first thing in the morning and they’re back late at night.”

Related: New Utah law could extend in-state tuition to refugees & asylum seekers

One of Rescue Salt Lake’s policies is not to ask questions. If a man needs shelter, provided he doesn’t pose a threat to staff or other guests, the mission will do its best to accommodate him.

However, it was made clear to the shelter that the Venezuelan men who showed up that night in Utah were all documented and legal.

Initially, it was presented to the shelter that the men were refugees, fleeing the political crisis in Venezuela that was triggered in 2013 after President Hugo Chavez died.

After President Chavez’s death, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves struggled with corruption and inflation. In 2014 Venezuela’s economy was crippled as global oil prices fell dramatically, which ultimately lead to a severe decline in living conditions and a simultaneous rise in the cost of basic goods and services.

By 2018 inflation in Venezuela soared over 1 million percent, and medicines for everything from headaches to cancer became unavailable.

Despite some improvements in 2019 after an opening of the economy, most Venezuelans still struggled to afford the basics which is why approximately 6.8 million citizens of Latin America’s once richest country have fled seeking asylum and refuge in more stable nations.

So, who were these Venezuelan men that came to Utah?

The Catholic Community Services is a not-for-profit organization based in Salt Lake City that helps refugees resettle in Utah. It’s been operating since 1945 and the current director Aden Batar himself is a refugee from Somalia. He fled east Africa with his family and settled in the USA in the 1990s.

He said it’s highly unlikely, near impossible, the Venezuelan men who were dropped in Utah at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake all those months ago were refugees.

“Refugees are people that are outside of the United States, in refugee camps or in a third country … they fled their home country and then they apply for refugee status,” Batar explains. “Once the U.S. refugee resettlement program accepts those individuals, the U.S. government brings those individuals or families into the U.S.”

Herein lies his point. If these men were refugees, they would have arrived in the U.S. having already been set up with a resettlement program with housing and job prospects.

“Whereas asylum seekers are people that come to our border asking to enter the U.S. … so then when they come into the U.S. they apply for political asylum,” Batar continues.

For those playing at home, one of the biggest political blocks on immigration is Title 42. It’s a pandemic-era policy that was being used to stem the number of immigrants entering the US and stop the spread of COVID-19 in holding facilities.

Related: Salt Lake County receives grant to serve Afghan refugees

Title 42 is technically still in effect but is due to end on May 23 of this year. In fact, last Thursday the Supreme Court canceled arguments in a challenge to end the immigration measure. Regardless, there are other ways for immigrants to seek asylum in the U.S.A.

“The U.S. government has stated recently that four nationalities, Venezuelans included, can be sponsored by anyone in the U.S. and then they [can] come through in an orderly way by getting what we call a parole status.”

U.S. Homeland Security assigns parole status to someone who is ineligible to enter the U.S. as a refugee, immigrant, or non-immigrant. This part of immigration law is only meant for emergency, humanitarian, and public interest reasons.

Upwards of 60,000 refugees who have fled their home country for a multitude of reasons now live in Utah according to Batar. But it’s difficult to know how many asylum seekers are here and end up getting granted refugee status.

“It’s why all this crisis is happening … we need to go back to a comprehensive immigration [policy],” Batar said.

“We have to have a process where services can be provided … but we don’t have the resources, I think the federal government has some responsibility in providing some resources.”

According to the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, almost all the Venezuelan men, who arrived in Utah on their doorstep that random night a few months ago, have been employed, moved into their own apartments, and have begun their life in America.


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How a Utah shelter helped Venezuelan men settle in the US, and what it says about our immigration policy