They live in a rusty shack with no running water, hiding from the violence just outside their door, haunted by a question that won’t go away: Should they have listened to President Biden?
A year ago, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro and her 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, fled a crumbling Venezuela, setting off for the United States, carrying almost nothing. But they quickly lost each other, separated in a treacherous jungle known as the Darién Gap.
For three terrifying days, Ms. Cuauro heaved herself over muddy hills and plowed through rivers that rose to her chest, panicked that her child had drowned, been kidnapped or fallen to her death.
After they finally found each other, reunited in a squall of kisses and tears, Ms. Cuauro took the Biden administration’s message to heart: The journey north is incredibly dangerous. Don’t risk it. Stop, and apply to come to the United States the legal way.
Many of the migrants traveling alongside the Cuauros — like hundreds of thousands of others — simply ignored the president’s warning, dismissing it as a ploy to keep them at bay. They kept marching, crossed the border and quickly started building new lives in the United States, with jobs that pay in dollars and children in American schools.
Ms. Cuauro listened and dropped off the migrant trail. But nearly a year later, all she has gotten is an auto-reply: Her applications to enter the United States legally have been submitted. She refreshes the website constantly, obsessively, and every day it says the same thing: “Case received.” Only the numbers shift: 57 days. 197 days. 341 days.
Online, she is bombarded by jubilant posts from Venezuelans who have made it to the United States — pictures of them in Times Square, wearing new clothes, eating big meals, going to school. Even the friend who guided her daughter safely through the jungle kept going and made it to Pennsylvania, where he now makes $140 a day as a mechanic.
Ms. Cuauro’s own life is mostly confined to the two rooms of her shack. Crime and violence are such constants that she rarely ventures out. Some days, there is no food in the house, and even when there is, her anxious daughter Sarah, now 7, often refuses to eat.
“I have cried, I have become desperate,” said Ms. Cuauro, 37, asking that her current location not be published for fear of being attacked. “We have followed the order to stay and wait.”
Ms. Cuauro and more than a million people are caught in a central contradiction of Mr. Biden’s response to the record number of migrants crossing the southern border during his presidency.
Eager to thwart a political crisis, the Biden administration is both urging and threatening people not to make the trek, pleading with Venezuelans like Ms. Cuauro to stay where they are and apply for a legal path to the United States announced last year.
The government has invited people from three other troubled nations in the region — Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua — to apply as well, giving them a chance to seek refuge in the country for up to two years in “a safe and lawful way.”
But only a fraction of the applicants have been accepted, while countless others — as many as 1.5 million or more, by several estimates — are waiting for an answer outside the United States in a kind of migration purgatory, trying to weather the upheaval, violence and hardship that makes them so anxious to flee.
Then, last month, Mr. Biden ripped up his own script, abruptly telling hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who had ignored his pleas and come to the United States anyway that they could remain in the country for at least 18 months, and even get a job.
Mr. Biden did so after Democratic leaders warned that big cities like New York would sink under the weight of tens of thousands of migrants who could not work and support themselves.
But for the legions of people who had followed the president’s instructions to stay away and take the legal route instead, like Ms. Cuauro, it was a slap in the face.
Had she disregarded him, kept plodding north and made it across the American border, she may well have been one of the nearly 500,000 Venezuelans granted special protection by the president.
Now, her chances of getting to the United States may disappear entirely.
A judge in Texas is expected to rule on the legal pathway she applied for, and many of its defenders are bracing for it to be shut down. Sneaking across the border is not an option, either, because Mr. Biden’s reprieve does not apply to newcomers. To the contrary, they can now be deported back to Venezuela.
The mixed messages show the obvious strains of Mr. Biden’s efforts to appease his own party members without fueling Republican claims that he is throwing open the doors of the nation to migrants and rewarding border crossers for breaking the law.
Stuck in the middle are people like the Cuauros.
In their shack, Sarah often asks when they are leaving for the United States.
“Let’s go, Mommy!” she says.
“My God,” Ms. Cuauro says to herself, wondering how to explain why they may never be able to. “What did I do wrong?”
Lost in the Jungle
I met Sarah on a steep, mud-slick mountain known as the Hill of Death.
She didn’t know yet that she was lost.
It was early October of last year, her fifth day in the Darién Gap. She and her mother had just spent the night under a cluster of tarps deep in the jungle.
Hundreds of people, exhausted and dirty, some gaunt from a lack of food, had slept with them in a muddy expanse by the Caribbean Sea. It looked like they were fleeing a war.
Most were Venezuelan, escaping nearly a decade of economic crisis presided over by an authoritarian leader, but made worse by American sanctions. Others, reflecting a growing global desperation, came from Haiti, Ecuador, China or Afghanistan.
The Darién Gap, a forested land bridge connecting Colombia and Panama, was the only way for them to get from South to North America on foot. Once barely penetrable, it has quickly become one of the planet’s busiest migrant thoroughfares, a roadless route of last resort for hundreds of thousands of people like Ms. Cuauro and her daughter.
Sarah, Ms. Cuauro’s only child, had never known a prosperous Venezuela, when oil wealth, not scarcity and hunger, defined the nation. She was born in 2016, in the throes of the country’s crisis. Food and diapers often disappeared from shelves. Lines for gasoline lasted days. The public health and education systems were falling apart. All around her, people were dying of curable problems.
Ms. Cuauro, a lawyer, had worked in the maritime industry. But as gasoline dwindled, so did her income. Friends were making it to the United States through the Darién jungle. The choice seemed clear — she and Sarah needed to go, too.
“No risk,” Ms. Cuauro had told herself, “no reward.”
But by the time I met Sarah, Ms. Cuauro was nowhere to be found.
The little girl was slowly trudging up the Hill of Death, caked in mud, gripping the hand of Ángel García. He was not her father, he explained, but a friend of Sarah’s mother, who had asked him to help the girl across the rugged terrain. He lifted her gingerly over logs, steered her past crevices and gave her pep talks to keep her spirits high.
“We’re almost there,” he told her near the top of the hill.
All the while, they assumed Sarah’s mother was not far behind.
Ms. Cuauro had been lucky enough to buy boots for the journey — tall, made of rubber, with thick, grippy soles. But blisters tore her feet anyway, and she had made the rookie mistake of cutting the skin off the wounds, exposing raw flesh.
By that October morning, every step had become excruciating, prompting her to ask Mr. García, a fellow Venezuelan she had met on the journey, to help with Sarah. As he took the little girl’s hand, Mr. García, 42, thought of his own 6-year-old, a bespectacled boy named Andrés, whom he had left behind.
What happened next changed their lives.
Ms. Cuauro moved slowly, unbalanced, her blistered feet slipping on a rocky river bed. Sarah, with Mr. García’s steady hand, traveled swiftly, often disappearing from view.
By late afternoon, when I came across Sarah near the top of the hill, Ms. Cuauro was still at the very bottom, surrounded by the slowest climbers, including people with injuries like hers, or worse.
She had expected Mr. García to wait with Sarah at the foot of the hill. But when she got there, “it was as if my soul had left my body,” she said.
Sarah was gone.
The Lure of Success Stories
American officials privately acknowledge that their core message to migrants — “Don’t risk the journey north. Take the legal path instead” — is not getting through to the extent they need it to.
A big reason, they say, is the onslaught of viral images showcasing the fruits of the jungle pass.
An entire subsection of the web is now dedicated to the Darién trek, which has achieved a kind of celebrity status on TikTok and Facebook. Some of the messages come from smugglers advertising their services, often wildly exaggerating the route’s ease. Many other images are posted by migrants themselves. And while some show the horrors of the forest, including dead bodies, the warnings are no match for the success stories.
One diptych posted on Facebook in March shows a muddy man in the jungle, bowing to kiss the stomach of a muddy-but-smiling pregnant woman. Then, in the second picture, he is in Times Square with the same woman, kissing a newborn she holds to her belly.
“If you have a dream,” the caption says, “go for it.”
Of course, many migrants suffer terribly on the journey north and, even if they make it to the United States, may find that their anguish is far from over, leaving them to beg or sell candy on the street to survive.
But the boosterish “before” and “after” memes often drown this out. Some posts show a family in the jungle, followed by a child’s cap-and-gown graduation in the United States. Others feature migrants with new cars and clothes. “My first day of work in the USA” is another common theme, typically accompanied by a picture of a fan of cash.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, says it’s hard to get migrants to take the risks seriously enough because “the victims” of the journey “don’t communicate” as profusely on social media. After all, he says, some of them “didn’t survive the journey through the Darién” and are never heard from again.
The legal path that Ms. Cuauro applied for, called humanitarian parole, allows people from Venezuela and the three other nations with sponsors in the United States to leapfrog the dangers of the trek by flying to America. The government says that about 250,000 people have entered this way in the last year alone.
Mr. Mayorkas says it’s part of a broader push by the Biden administration to expand legal ways of entering the country, calling it “the best model” for managing the nation’s “broken immigration system.”
But this legal route has a cap — 30,000 people a month — and while supporters call it the most ambitious effort to open the gates in years, it does not come close to meeting the demand.
The tide of Venezuelans at the southern American border keeps rising, hitting a new high in September. The once impenetrable Darién Gap now has thousands of people slogging through it at any given time. By year’s end, half a million people are expected to make the trek through the jungle, double last year’s almost unfathomable record.
For the frantic millions trying to leave their homes, the legal door is simply not wide enough.
“The wait is worth it,” Mr. Mayorkas says to migrants. “The wait is safer than the smuggler.”
He says the administration’s policies are consistent and coherent. But the long odds make it hard to convince people that the legal route will actually work for them, said David Bier, an immigration expert at the Cato Institute.
As for the migrants who trek to the border instead of waiting, he said, “I think it’s totally rational what they’re doing.”
A Glimmer of Hope
“Sarah! Sarah!” Ms. Cuauro yelled, searching for her daughter in the dark.
By the time Ms. Cuauro had reached the top of the Hill of Death, it was pitch black, the stars obscured by the rain.
Sarah was hours ahead of her, having already made her way down the other side of the mountain with Mr. García, who rushed to find her a place to sleep. That night, Sarah trembled in the rain as he and two friends pitched a tent. She slept sandwiched between them.
In the morning, the friends doted on her, asking other migrants if they had seen her mother. People passed word up and down the chain of marchers, referring to her with a nickname: the lost girl.
Mr. García decided that the sooner he got Sarah out of the jungle, the safer she would be. They lumbered forward with a long trail of migrants in a delirious shuffle, barely eating or sleeping. By then, the guides people had paid to lead them through the forest had disappeared. No one knew how many more days of hiking remained, what the end of the route looked like, or what to do once they found it.
On the eighth day in the jungle, Sarah and her companions arrived bleary-eyed at an Indigenous community near the end of the forest, where the Panamanian authorities had set up a checkpoint.
Hearing of the lost girl, officials took Sarah to a back room in an improvised office. She sat in white plastic chair, mostly silent.
Hours later, her mother came limping in, crying, kissing and hugging her child.
“Forgive me,” Ms. Cuauro cried. “I didn’t abandon you,” she insisted. “I came to find you.”
Sarah stared ahead blankly, her emotions left on the mountain.
A few days later, another shock: The whole reason Ms. Cuauro had put herself and her daughter through such an ordeal evaporated in an instant.
For months, the Biden administration had been allowing thousands of Venezuelans who showed up at the southern border to cross into the United States. It was more default than hardened policy. The United States had few relations with Venezuela’s autocratic government, making it harder to send people back there.
The opening had inspired Ms. Cuauro and countless others to risk the journey. But right after she and Sarah emerged from the jungle, the Biden administration announced a switch. Venezuelans at the American border could now be turned around and sent to Mexico.
Crushed and overcome by guilt after what her daughter had endured, Ms. Cuauro considered returning to Venezuela. But how? Back through the jungle that had nearly torn them apart? She thought of scrounging money for a plane ticket home. And then, what? A life of perpetual deprivation?
First, she needed a safe place to regroup. The two took a bus to Costa Rica, then another to Nicaragua, then trekked through another forest, then took a boat, then more forest, then rode a motorbike. At one point, in a rainstorm near the border with Honduras, Ms. Cuauro stumbled forward blindly and thought for a terrifying moment that she had lost Sarah again.
Her heart pounded, as if she was suddenly back in the Darién.
“I’m lost, I’m lost!” Ms. Cuauro screamed after briefly losing contact with the group.
One of the other migrants responded, “Girl! Don’t yell! Be quiet.” Ms. Cuauro followed the voice back to the group, rattled but relieved.
Within days, Ms. Cuauro’s sister, who had made it to the United States a few months earlier, raised a new hope: the Biden administration’s legal pathway for Venezuelans.
Getting in would not be easy. The rules required a sponsor willing to take financial responsibility for Ms. Cuauro and her daughter for two years. So, her sister paid $1,000 to a person who claimed to be a lawyer and promised to help. The family waited. The person vanished.
When The New York Times published a front-page story about the Cuauros’ harrowing trek through the jungle, readers took matters into their own hands. The chief executive of an insurance claim management company in Georgia and an account manager at a wine company in New York quickly submitted applications to sponsor Ms. Cuauro. A Microsoft executive in Colorado and a lawyer in Minnesota exchanged late night texts to help out as well.
“I’m a mom of three kids,” the lawyer said of Ms. Cuauro’s decision to make the trip. “I would make the exact same choice.”
The Microsoft executive decided to open her home to the Cuauros once they arrived, and the women went about lining up work, school enrollment and trauma counseling.
A room in the executive’s Colorado home was prepared for them, nearly every inch of it covered in donated clothes, shoes, boots, jackets, school supplies, books in English and Spanish — an outpouring of support from families the women had contacted. A former executive in North Carolina reached out, and together these five strangers formed an unofficial Cuauro committee.
Ms. Cuauro was barely able to comprehend the response. She waited in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, living in a single room with a bed, television and fan. Gang violence had prompted the Honduran president to issue a state of emergency, and mother and daughter rarely went out.
As the months dragged on, the Cuauro committee began to contact immigrant aid groups and congressmen, seeking information about the status of the Cuauros’ applications. Was there something wrong with the paperwork? Did they need to provide more information? No one could get an answer.
In July, the office of U.S. Representative Lou Correa, Democrat of California, printed out a giant photograph of Sarah covered in mud in the jungle, and he held it up during a hearing to show the sacrifices migrants were making to build new lives.
Sarah had become a literal poster child for the Darién. She and her mother had done what Mr. Biden had asked of them. They had a first-class support team of eager American sponsors. Yet no one could figure out how to get their cases through the U.S. immigration system.
Inside the shack, Sarah sleeps with an international collection of stuffed animals, plush toys she’s been given in the many countries she’s trekked through in her short life.
Over the last year, Sarah has grown taller, but is as skinny as ever. In the afternoons, the two venture outside so that Sarah can go to school. She is still in first grade, not third, like she should be, having lost so much of her education already.
In the evenings, mother and daughter practice English on Duolingo — Sarah has learned numbers, colors and days of the week — or talk about the United States. Sarah has heard that she will be able to pick strawberries there, though she wants to study math and join a chess club. Her latest obsession is learning the lyrics to the pop song “Unstoppable.”
“I put my armor on, show you how strong I am,” Sarah sings. “I’m unstoppable!”
Ms. Cuauro agrees with Mr. Biden that the trek north is far more dangerous than anyone should have to risk. In the days after their Darién ordeal, she bolted awake at night, having dreamed of falling off a steep muddy hill.
That doesn’t happen any more. But anxiety about the present and future is so persistent that she has begun losing her hair. She tries to hide it from Sarah, she said, “because I don’t want her to feel that she is a burden to me.”
Still, “she’s very smart and she understands many things.”
Recently, a member of the Cuauro committee, the woman in North Carolina, reached out with an urgent request. A Venezuelan man who had contacted her asking for help was about to take the Darién route. The woman asked Ms. Cuauro to talk to him — to try to convince him to apply for the legal route instead.
“I did it,” Ms. Cuauro said, “but he didn’t want to listen, and he left.”
The man got to the American border and, within days, crossed into the United States.
Federico Rios, Isayen Herrera, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Eileen Sullivan contributed reporting.