A Hopeful Voice

Undocumented Venezuelans find their livelihood by singing on the street.

By 4 p.m., Irelys Rojas begins to fear the end of the day.

It’s raining, and the restaurants she performs in are empty. At 5, she sits down at a café to count how much she’s made for the day.

It’s $24,000 Colombian pesos, or about USD $8.

She needed USD $33 to afford rent, a bus ride and the single meal she eats per day. The rest — about USD $20 — she planned to send to her parents and the three sons she left behind in Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela. Despite the soaring inflation at home, it would’ve been enough for a carton of eggs and a liter of milk.

Her charisma shows as Irelys walks the streets of downtown Medellín, hiding tears behind smiles as she loudly greets every vendor on the block selling candy, phone cards, fake jewelry.

“Hola, mi amor, ¿Cómo estás?” Hi love, how are you? she tells everyone.

She met them in January, when she began singing in restaurants for tips shortly after arriving. The 38-year-old drags a speaker on wheels, stopping at every coffee shop and eatery that will allow her to perform a song.

In Venezuela, Irelys worked from home designing beach totes and cakes for special occasions. She spent her free time with her boys — Reynaldo, Luis Manuel and Angel Rafael. With inflation reaching 80,000 percent in 2018, there wasn’t much money left for handbags and cake. Less money meant fewer buyers, which meant fewer sales.

Irelys had never traveled outside of the country and therefore never needed a passport. When it was time to leave Venezuela five months ago, she couldn’t afford one.

Getting a passport is a costly, bureaucratic and lengthy endeavor for Venezuelans, but migrants still yearn for the burgundy booklet and entrance stamp. Hyperinflation and mismanagement left the government unable to issue passports, sometimes lacking the material to make them or the electricity to load citizens’ information on the computer system.

“You have to find a middleman to get an appointment to have your picture taken and then wait months and months for them to tell you there’s no materials,” she said. “Oh, and then pay the middleman like USD $1,000.”

A woman sits and counts money at a table

Irelys Rojas counts the money she’s made from tips after singing in restaurants on March 13, 2019. Since January she has made a living singing on the streets of Medellín.

Crossing the border illegally, she forfeited the chance to have a formal job, access to health care or even a own credit card in Colombia. She is one of half a million Venezuelans who are now in Colombia without proper papers to work or obtain services — a leap of faith taken to escape the unbearable situation in their country.

Renouncing her right to belong to a country wasn’t a difficult choice. Her sons needed food and notebooks and socks — all of which she could only provide from afar.

“I’m here because I have to,” she said. “I have three mouths to feed back home in Venezuela, but no one wants to leave their country.”

“You have to find a middleman to get an appointment to have your picture taken and then wait months and months for them to tell you there’s no material. Oh, and then pay the middleman like USD $1,000.”

Irelys Rojas, Venezuelan migrant who busks on the street to make money

The border that divides Colombia and Venezuela is the longest and busiest in Latin America, with 70,000 people crossing every day, according to Christian Krüger Sarmiento, the director of Migración Colombia. At least 5 percent, he said, cross to stay.

In an attempt to provide a legal avenue for Venezuelans who cross on a regular basis to find food, medicine and sometimes gasoline, the Colombian government began issuing the Tarjeta de Movilidad Fronteriza, a border mobility card. Venezuelans who reside in border states can get a card and move freely across the border without a passport.

The six legal border crossings, however, have been closed since late February, following orders from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, leaving the sea of Venezuelans who cross every day to do so illegally.

In response, the National Colombian Police implemented tougher regulations on the illegal paths known as trochas, establishing checkpoints to verify IDs and criminal records of those making the trip, said Police Col. José Luis Palomino.

From 2016 to 2018, Colombian authorities deported 4,274 Venezuelans, compared to only 294 in the three previous years combined. Many have made headlines for committing gruesome crimes.

Colombia — a country that has historically exported more migrants than it’s taken in — is responding to the mass influx of Venezuelans by granting them legal status under specific conditions.

Along with border mobility cards, Migración Colombia began issuing a special stay permit, the Permiso Especial de Permanencia (PEP) in 2017 for Venezuelans, which is valid for two years. Since then, the government has issued various rounds of PEPs for people who entered the country with a stamped passport before a certain date.

With the scarcity of Venezuelan passports, the agency said, as of August, only about 500,000 have proper documentation – with PEPs or visas.

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The Venezuelan passport comes in navy blue or burgundy. To obtain a passport, citizens must register for an appointment online between 5:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. Usually, there is a month-long wait for a follow-up after the first appointment.

Appointments are made through the civil registry agency known as SAIME (Servicio Administrativo de Identificación, Migración y Extranjería).


When obtained through official means, a Venezuelan passport costs about USD $1.55. While this may not seem expensive, the current minimum wage hovers around USD $6.

Some choose to expedite the frustratingly long process and get a passport through the black market, which costs upwards of USD $62.

However, as of November 1st, 2018, passports must be paid for in the Petro cryptocurrency. The currency is supposed to be backed by oil and mineral reserves. Passports will cost 2 Petros (about 7,200 bolivars) which is equivalent to 4 months salary.


A Venezuelan passport is not just a travel document, but a proof of identity and a means of having a say in the government. With over 3 million Venezuelans abroad, 60% of them have irregular status, meaning they can’t vote in elections due to lack of documentation.

For those who have no choice but to leave Venezuela without a passport, they are at risk and may struggle to obtain a proof of residence in their destination country. This limits access to education, healthcare, and the ability to join the workforce.


Passports are becoming nearly impossible to get due to the lack of resources to make the documents, unaffordable prices and administrative inefficiencies.

With knowledge of this, the Colombian government has decided to help out Venezuelans within the country’s borders who could not renew their passports back home.

Starting in early March of 2019, the Colombian government extended the validity of Venezuelan passports to two years past the expiration date. More than 500,000 Venezuelans could benefit from this decision.

* Data from Migración Colombia

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PEP is short for Permiso Especial de Permanencia, which is Spanish for Special Permit of Permanence. It is a special permit granted to Venezuelans who seek refuge in Colombia.


Venezuelans are eligible to apply for the PEP if they arrived in Colombia through an authorized immigration post before December 17, 2018, and do not have a criminal record.

In order to obtain the PEP, either a Passport or Identity Card is required.


The PEP is valid for 90 days and is extendable for up to a maximum of 2 years. Once obtained, Venezuelans are able to work, study, access the health system, and perform legal activity in Colombia.


As of December 2018, 1,174,743 Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia. Only 45.6% of them have obtained the PEP.

In total, more than half of the Venezuelans in Colombia are undocumented.

* Data from Migracion Colombia

Venezuelan ID
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A Venezuelan ID Card, also known as a Cédula de Identidad, is the national identity card Venezuela’s government issues. Many countries, such as China (PRC Resident Identity Card) and France (Carte Nationale d’Identité), also have national identity cards.


To obtain a cédula, Venezuelans must be at least nine years old and provide an original birth certificate.

It’s difficult to go a day without needing a cédula. They are used to make purchases, vote, travel domestically and internationally, and stay in hotels.

Cédulas contain a number that is used to identify every citizen.


It’s becoming almost impossible to obtain a cédula due to the shortage of resources to make the documents. Most offices do not have the printers needed to print the cédula, and some offices are asking citizens to bring their own laminator.

Cédulas were once the main documentation Venezuelan migrants used to legally enter surrounding countries, but now, many countries, such as Peru, are requiring a passport because cédulas are easy documents to forge and falsify.


Starting in December 2016, President Nicolás Maduro rolled out a new identity card called the Carnet de la Patria, or “Fatherland Card.” Over half the population has enrolled for the new card.

The new ID card has come under criticism as being a means for the government to monitor citizens and allocate scarce resources. The card gives a lot of personal data to computer services, such as a person's location or whether someone voted.

On a trip in 2008, Venezuelan officials learned that Chinese company ZTE was developing a system that would help Beijing track its citizens' behaviors. About six years later, ZTE was hired to build the fatherland card database.

* Data from El Tiempo and Migracion Colombia



The Legal Limbo of Venezuelans in Colombia

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Venezuelan ID

Another effort to regularize those without a passport was a census, which took place from April to July in 2018. At first, Colombian authorities marketed the census as an effort to count how many Venezuelans remained undocumented within Colombian territory. The registry didn’t promise legal status but stipulated the information obtained couldn’t be used by authorities for deportation proceedings.

When the census ended, 442,262 Venezuelans who registered online qualified for the PEP, allowing them to obtain legal employment, access the public healthcare system and apply for visas that would grant more permanent legal status.

“That’s a topic that helps us shield the country when it comes to safety but also helps us protect the migrants’ rights, which are oftentimes violated for their condition of irregularity — they’re exploited in the workplace,” Krüger Sarmiento said.

Still, the government estimates that of the 1.1 million Venezuelans in Colombia, nearly 500,000, or 40 percent, remain undocumented, as of February, according to Migración Colombia.

As the first two years of PEPs expire in July, it’s unclear whether the government will allow Venezuelans to renew their permits.

“The logic behind it was to allow the two-year time period for Venezuelans to seek a visa — a student visa, a work visa, a refugee visa,” said Carlos Vázquez, the president of ColVenz, a nonprofit in Medellín dedicated to helping new Venezuelan immigrants. “Some visas take time, some money, some require sponsorship, and some people don’t even know about them. Some people can’t afford to plan that far in advance.”

When Irelys planned her departure, she didn’t even try to get a passport.

Had it been a regular situation where she could pay a modest fee for her document, she would’ve done it, she said, but spending a small fortune on a document instead of her children’s wellbeing seemed ridiculous.

“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “It was never an option for me.”

A woman lies on a bed while talking on the phone

Irelys takes a video call from her family in the room she rents in Medellín on March 15, 2019.

To leave, all she needed to do was sell her house in Margarita Island.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates at least 3 million Venezuelans have migrated. That’s about 10 percent of the country’s population. In recent years, real estate property values plummeted in a market overwhelmed by soon-to-be migrants who hope to sell and leave with some money in their pockets.

When a man offered Irelys $200 to buy her five-bedroom home — less than half of what it’s worth — she took it without hesitation. It was enough to get a smartphone to stay in touch with her kids and save some cash for the trip ahead.

In just four days, she hitchhiked 800 miles into Colombia and handed $7 to an indigenous man who allowed a group of Venezuelans to cross through a private house in La Guajira.

Once in Maicao, the first Colombian city she set foot on, Irelys felt overwhelmed. Food was abundant and cheap and people weren’t rummaging through the trash to quiet their stomachs.

There was freshly baked bread, buñuelos, pan de bono, pastelitos, empanadas — all traditional finger foods that had become scarce and expensive over the last few years in Venezuela.

A map of Irelys's journey to Colombia from her home in Isla Margarita

This is Irelys’s journey to Colombia from her home in Isla Margarita. The lines shown represent the distance it would take using roads. Often the journey is a lot longer and arduous because people are on foot and use roundabout ways to travel across the border.

Birthright Citizenship

While the United States grants unconditional citizenship by birth, most countries use a system of “citizenship by blood," meaning that a person born in that country would only be considered as a citizen if one (or both) of their parents has citizenship.
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Colombia has “conditional” birthright citizenship. To obtain Colombian citizenship at birth, one must have at least one parent that is a Colombian citizen or a Colombian legal resident.

Unfortunately, many Venezuelan migrants do not fit this description.

As of now, many Venezuelans do not have the proper documentation — proof of residency or PEP — for their newborn babies to claim citizenship. These children are considered “stateless,” as the parents cannot claim Colombian citizenship for their child.

With a steep decline in oil prices in 2014, Venezuela’s economy — which depends solely on oil exports — began to crumble. Food shortages became the norm. Regulations, like price ceilings on staple items as inflation skyrocketed, asphyxiated private industries, have left Venezuelans hungry and malnourished.

A survey conducted by the Universidad Simón Bolívar revealed that in 2017, 64 percent of Venezuelans had lost 24 pounds on average.

“When things were good in Venezuela, my life was like … I never suffered, I never cried, I was very happy. I had a great life,” Irelys said, referring to a song by songwriter Juan Gabriel.

Whoever walked into her house had a spot at the dining table — the plumber, her neighbor, a friend. Now, she said, they try not to invite people over during lunch or dinner because there’s barely enough to get by with the little money Irelys can send.

Even when her stomach was growling in pain as the sun set, she forced herself to sleep on the bus to Medellín. She wondered, Had her boys eaten?

A woman sings on the streets to make money

Irelys busks for long hours on the streets of Medellín for small donations.

Irelys stepped down from the bus on Dec. 3 at 4 a.m. Two hours later, she had an apron on and was taking orders as a server in a bakery. The shifts ran from 6 a.m. to midnight, and some days she couldn’t sit.

Two weeks later, she quit. The manager screamed at one of her coworkers — another Venezuelan woman who was undocumented — and Irelys was on edge. She threw the apron on a table and told the manager she wouldn’t come back.

She wasn’t losing much: her salary amounted to USD $3 a day, and a few extra bucks on tips. Yet she managed to save for the family remittances.

“I think they exploit Venezuelans,” she said. “If they have a chance, they work you to the ground.”

When Irelys walked out of the bakery that morning, she headed to Plaza Botero, where she prayed and cried on a bench. An older woman asked why she was crying.

“I’m upset,” she replied.

“Are you crying because you don’t have a job? Is that why you’re crying?” the woman asked. “Stop crying. Women sell sex here and they work.”

“In Colombia, irregularity is one of the forms of employment. That informal way of selling things generates jobs, and generally, it’s used by single mothers or the elderly, for example — people who can’t find a formal job who use it to generate their upkeep.”

Leidy Tatiana Acevedo Higuita, legal counsel for Colombian National Police

She stared and turned around and saw the prostitutes. They were sitting on the same bench, smoking cigarettes while waiting for clients.

Irelys’ heart sunk.

But a man selling cookies walked by, and if he could do it, why couldn’t she do the same?

She wiped her tears and asked where he got the cookies. Only two more weeks went by before she was briefly detained by policemen.

“They treated me like a criminal, but then they sympathized and let me go,” she said.

La Paisa, a woman from Medellín who controls the informal cookie selling business in Plaza Botero, ratted Rojas out to the cops and they seized her merchandise. The policemen let her go eventually, threatening to report her to immigration and issue a ticket if she continued to sell in the same spot.

While the Colombian National Police didn’t comment on any specific detentions, Leidy Tatiana Acevedo Higuita, the legal counsel for the region that covers Medellín, said informal vendors — those who sell on the streets without a permit from the municipal government — are not necessarily illegal.

“In Colombia, irregularity is one of the forms of employment,” she said. “That informal way of selling things generates jobs, and generally, it’s used by single mothers or the elderly, for example — people who can’t find a formal job who use it to generate their upkeep.”

If vendors wander up and down the street, they can’t be fined. However, when someone decides to settle down and sell in the same spot, policemen have the authority to detain them and seize their merchandise, charging them for invasion to the public property.

This law went into effect in 2016, and since then, Acevedo Higuita said the number of tickets issued for invading public property has increased. But there’s no way to tell if they’re Venezuelan or Colombian.

Acevedo Higuita said a ticket wouldn’t necessarily lead to deportation, but when immigrants are detained or ticketed, Migración Colombia gets a report.

The policemen returned Irelys’ merchandise and let her go after a few hours of questioning at the station.

“They felt sorry for me after while,” she said.

It’s unclear whether immigration authorities received a report, but she said they’ve never tried to contact her.

In the meantime, she’s learned to navigate a new city — and a new country — without documentation.

As of August, the U.S. government has donated USD $46 million to alleviate the burden the immigrants pose to the Colombian government. Vice President Mike Pence announced another USD $55 million to help refugees in January.

According to authorities, the money is used to provide emergency medical care for immigrants. With the PEP or a visa, they can access the already saturated public healthcare system. Undocumented Venezuelans like Irelys can only receive treatment for emergencies — like a broken leg or appendicitis.

“Thank God I haven’t gotten sick,” she said.

Pregnant women, who flee Venezuela in fear of raising a child in the midst of the crisis, also receive checkups and assistance during childbirth for free, regardless of their status.

But the children are brought into the world nationless. Only 30 countries in the world provide birthright citizenship — Colombia isn’t one of them.

Although the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has set up temporary camps for migrants in border towns — and briefly in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia — there aren’t any permanent housing solutions to board the crisis. As a consequence, many Venezuelans roam the streets during the day and find a bench in a public square to spend the night.

William José Hidalgo could only afford two nights at a flophouse, where he paid USD $1.25 a night, right after he walked from Venezuela on March 1. Now, he sleeps in Plaza Botero in downtown Medellín. Occasionally, an elder man allows Hidalgo to shower at his home, which is just a few blocks from the square.

“I feel happier during the day — when it’s daytime, because when the night falls, I start thinking,” said Hidalgo, who is also undocumented. “I think I’m going to get sick very soon.”

He’s gone to shelters, where he’s gotten food but not a bed or a cot because they’re already at capacity. He’s walked around restaurants and stores to ask for a job, but after his belongings — including his Venezuelan ID — were stolen at gunpoint in Plaza Botero the first night he slept on the streets, no one has given him a chance to work.

Irelys says she’s fortunate: a bed awaited her in Medellín. Her father’s sister-in-law informally rents an apartment in a public housing complex from a Colombian woman. The rent is about USD $110 a month, and Irelys pays about USD $40.

It’s a home, but her kids are not waiting to greet her at the door when she gets home from work.

“I’m sharing this house with people who have become my family, but they’re not my family,” she said. “It’s not your home — It’s a temporary home that took me in. I close my eyes and I wish I was with my family.”

“That’s a topic that helps us shield the country when it comes to safety but also helps us protect the migrants’ rights, which are oftentimes violated for their condition of irregularity — they’re exploited in the workplace.”

Christian Krüger Sarmiento, Director de Migración Colombia

What Irelys made from the cookies was enough that day to reserve a speaker at a tech store nearby. After singing in many family gatherings with her uncles, who are musicians, she never thought she’d be doing it for money.

“I feel like I don’t have the best voice in the world but I do have a talent,” she said. “I have met many people who like my voice. I thank God very much for this talent, for this gift that I have.”

Sometimes her voice isn’t enough. One Thursday morning Irelys speaker couldn’t be turned on. She’d been using it for three months by then to play the instrumental version of the pop songs she performs.

She spent her savings — about USD $17 — in chocolates and pencils to get by for the day.

“That’s I need to do; that’s how I work,” she said. “If I don’t have my speaker I have to figure out what to do.”

Occasionally, she stopped at restaurants to sing an acapella piece. The only tune she lets her voice carry without accompaniment is called “Venezuela,” a song about the country’s natural landscapes and beauty.

When she gets permission from the manager, she stands in front of the diners, wishes everyone a good afternoon and introduces herself. Irelys takes a deep breath. The words to the song roll of her tongue, even though she looks frightened.

“Thank you ladies and gentlemen for your attention,” she says when the performance ends. “Remember that us good venezuelans outnumber the bad ones, and that the good ones always make a difference.”