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Some Workers Have Come a Very Long Way

Many of the hard-working contractors in town with companies such as PuroClean and First OnSite are Hispanic and Latine and predominantly Spanish-speaking, sent here by their employers from out of state.

The Bridge and an interpreter caught up with six young workers who were cleaning out a building behind Main Street. They stood in a semicircle, offered us bottles of water, and took a few minutes to talk. Here is what they told us.

Originally from Venezuela, they now reside in Florida and Virginia and are veterans of cleanup operations in Chicago and Florida after Hurricane Ian. Work here lasts up to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, with paychecks weekly.

“We’re Latino. We like to work,” quipped W., a car-electronics technician in his home country. He shared a photo of his four-year-old daughter sleeping on a car luggage rack that carried her for part of the journey to the United States. (She now lives in Miami.)

Some came to the United States on visas; others trudged over the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous region of the Isthmus of Panama that tens of thousands of migrants have traversed in recent years. One person walked 28 days to cross the river into Texas.

On arrival, some spent days at the border. Y., a solemn-faced former member of the Venezuelan Marine Corps, waited there for two months.

Like many Venezuelan immigrants, several were professionals or heading that way when they left. R., a tall woman with a steady gaze behind sunglasses, was a radio journalist and television producer who was tickled to meet a fellow journalist. C., petite and brown-haired, was a licensed administrator. 

U., a blonde woman quick to smile and laugh, was a medical student. Her mother back in Venezuela has cancer.

“It breaks my heart to emigrate and leave my family and never know when I will go back,” U. said. “The problem with migrating is that your heart is always in two pieces — one at home, one here.” 

She hopes to bring her family to this country. Meanwhile, they send money home.

“There are no services [in Venezuela]. Food is expensive,” said J., a bespectacled former administration student.

Everything there is even pricier than here, they agreed.

The employer was lodging them and seven others in a house about half an hour from town. C. hugged herself as she confessed they were cold at night, not having expected cool weather in summer.

Meals consisted of what they prepared at the house; they lacked a per-diem for meal expenses and had not sought to eat at the food hub. After 15 days in town, none reported experiencing racism here or hearing of anyone turned away from free meals. They expected to head straight to the next job by early August.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the Venezuelan international displacement crisis is the world’s second largest, with six million people now displaced. Some 5,000 people continue to leave Venezuela each day.

The group expressed gratitude to the United States for opening doors to opportunities to work here and send money to their families.

We asked if they wanted to become citizens. U. crossed herself.

“That’s the dream,” she said.

Willow Hecht contributed additional reporting to this story.