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What it's like helping newly arrived Venezuelan migrants in Florida

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Let's turn now to someone who has been working directly with Venezuelan asylum-seekers in Florida. Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet is the executive director of the Hope Community Center near Orlando. Thank you so much for being with us.

FELIPE SOUSA-LAZABALLET: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So Florida is known for taking in refugees from repressive regimes, from Cuba and, you know, other places. What do you think about your governor, Ron DeSantis, flying these asylum-seekers to Martha's Vineyard?

SOUSA-LAZABALLET: Well, first of all, it's important to remind ourselves that refugees have been building Florida for many years. As a matter of fact, the most common example I like to share is our former senator, Mel Martinez, who came to the United States as a refugee as a kid without his parents, running away from Cuba. So it's a core part of our society to be a welcoming place for all people.

RASCOE: So the governor of Florida argues that the immigration system is broken and that not enough is being done. And so he wants to protect the interests of Florida by seeking out migrants who may come to Florida and sending them elsewhere. What do you think about that argument?

SOUSA-LAZABALLET: Well, we do agree with one thing with the governor. Yes, it's true. The immigration system is inhumane, and it needs to be changed. And we want Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that allows all of us to exist in a humane way in the United States. What we disagree on is the concept of a burden. We don't believe that immigrants are a burden to the state of Florida. And it is honestly a slap in the face to be told that we are a burden to the state.

RASCOE: What are the stories that you've heard from people about why they are leaving Venezuela? Like, why are they coming to the U.S.?

SOUSA-LAZABALLET: It's an array of things. So some folks were activists in Venezuela, and because of their activism against the government, they were threatened. One example is of an asylum-seeker who told us that after he participated in a few protests, his house was vandalized. And in essence, it was a message that said, we're coming for you. We're going to kill you. And he had to just pick up the things he had and left. We also hear all the time the stories of people who are living in extreme poverty because of the regime there.

One example is a trans woman who came to the United States. At first, she began her journey with her mom. She did all of this walking, by the way, all the way from Venezuela to the United States. She went to Colombia first, and her mother died of COVID there. She had to sell her hair to have enough money to finish the journey. And when that happened to her, she was put in detention. And she was there for a month and a half, and her gender identity was not respected. She was put on a detention center for men, where she was harassed. And then eventually she was able to make her way to Orlando, where she had family.

RASCOE: I mean, I understand that this work is personal for you. Your husband is Venezuelan. You yourself came to this country as an unaccompanied minor. Talk to us more about that and about your story. I feel like a lot of people don't understand that.

SOUSA-LAZABALLET: No, absolutely. So I came to the United States when I was 14 years old. I was very poor. I lived in a slum in Rio. And because I'm LGBTQ+, I was a victim of violence. I was targeted. And my family got scared. They didn't know if I was going to survive that violence. And I had a sister who was living here already for six years. So my mom - in that moment of desperation, she sent me to the United States. And imagine that difficult moment for my mother, right? Here is her son - someone that she loves with all her heart, with all her might - and she takes the little bit of money, the little bit of resources she had to send me over here. And I came by myself.

I was lucky because I have a loving sister. She raised me. She loved me. And, you know, I'm so grateful to her. But not many unaccompanied minors have a family member that they can turn to. You know, like you mentioned, my husband is from Venezuela. He got to the U.S. 20 years ago. And since then, about 90% of his family is already here - right? - because of the conditions there. And a lot of them are seeking asylum at this point. And some folks now from Venezuela have access to temporary protected status. So the new wave don't have that yet - right? - or don't have it at all. So in our family, we have literally every kind of person. You have the Venezuelan that came 20 years ago and now is a U.S. citizen, like my husband, the newer wave who are seeking asylum, those who have now TPS, but also folks who don't have anything.

RASCOE: What do you think that people don't understand about this process and about why people are coming to the U.S.?

SOUSA-LAZABALLET: Well, one, it's important to highlight that seeking asylum is actually their legal right. It's something that exists in our laws. It's something that exists in other countries. It's not new to the United States. So that's really important to understand. They are not getting caught in the border. They are turning themselves in. And the second piece is the humanity, right? Like, imagine, like, this trans woman who was running away from Venezuela and had to sell her hair to get here after her mother died in Colombia, or the young LGBTQ boy like myself who had to run away from my country of origin because of violence. We're coming to this country because we want a chance, because we are human, and because we know that we can contribute a lot to this country.

RASCOE: Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet is the executive director of the Hope Community Center in Apopka, Fla. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SOUSA-LAZABALLET: Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing our story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.