After a two-month, 10-country trek – through the jungles of northern Colombia, the Darién Gap, and the US immigration system – Anabel and Crisman Urbaez of Venezuela, alongside their two children and dog, now sleep on warm beds at a Brooklyn family shelter.
But their relative calm these days disguises an agonizing journey that started in Lima, Peru, after economic fortune dried up and the family became targets of xenophobic rants.
Much like the thousands of migrants sent from Texas to Washington, DC, and New York – on the order of the governor of Texas to protest the Biden administration’s immigration policies – the Urbaez family sold everything they owned and gathered what they could for the trip, including Max, their pit bull pup.
“The economy began to go down in Peru,” Crisman Urbaez told CNN. “We couldn’t afford much food. There’s also a lot of xenophobia against Venezuelans in Latin America. Sometimes people insulted us, and I didn’t want that for my children.”
Using cars for transportation, the family crossed parts of Ecuador and Colombia in late April. Then a four-day walk through the jungles of northern Colombia landed them in Panama.
Sebastian Urbaez, the couple’s son, told CNN there were times when he was exhausted. In those moments, he said, Max would lie on him and lick his cheek to cheer him up.
“He was so tough. He just kept walking with us. He’s not just a dog. He’s like our brother now,” Sebastian, 9, said.
Determined to get Max into the United States, the family said they got him on several buses by wrapping him in a blanket and passing him off as a child.
“Costa Rica was hard to get through. Once they realized Max was a dog, they asked us to get off the bus,” Crisman said. “But we kept trying.”
After weeks of sleeping on cardboard and safely navigating their way through Mexico, the family crossed the Rio Grande and turned themselves in to immigration authorities in Eagle Pass, Texas, on June 19.
Asking for asylum and searching for Max
The Urbaez family asked for asylum upon crossing the border.
But immigration officials did not want to accept Max into the country. They told Anabel to think of her children and leave the dog behind.
“But I just couldn’t,” Anabel said. “Not after everything he’s gone through with our family.”
Sebastian and his 6-year-old sister, Criszanyelis, began to cry as the family begged immigration officers to allow them to take Max with them, to no avail.
“There was one officer, who I believe God put in our path,” Anabel told CNN. “I’m so thankful for him. He also cried a bit. He then told me he took Max to a shelter and gave me the address for the shelter so I could go look for him once we were released.”
The immigration officer, according to Anabel, recognized Max from articles that were published by Latin American news outlets, which had covered the family’s unusual journey. The Mexican news outlet Posta nicknamed the dog “Max, the migrant dog.”
After release, the family trekked to the dog shelter to retrieve Max. But the shelter told them they had released Max to a man who claimed he was related to the family. The Urbaez family was able to locate the man – a fellow migrant who had traveled with the family, according to Anabel. He agreed to return Max if they picked him up in Uvalde, Texas.
With the help of a stranger who offered to give the family a ride, the Urbaezes were reunited with Max the next day.
They then found themselves in Uvalde Memorial Park, where Criszanyelis left a toy at the memorial set up for the 21 victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting, Anabel said.
The urban jungle
After release from US custody, immigration officials in Texas had directed the Urbaez family to a shelter in New York City and scheduled a meeting with immigration court.
The family, with Max safely in its custody, was now determined to reach New York and appear before a judge.
With the help of a stranger, who came across the Urbaezes stranded at a gas station, the family caught a ride to San Antonio, where they hoped to find more help.
In San Antonio, they approached an organization that provides assistance to immigrants (Anabel does not recall the group’s name but said all workers wore blue jackets).
“They helped us out and got us plane tickets to New York City but when they realized we had a dog, they canceled our tickets.” Crisman said.
The family told CNN they begged the organization for help, and they finally agreed to get the family bus tickets to New York City. The Urbaezes spent three days on the road, the couple said, before arriving in New York just before midnight on June 27.
The family arrived at Port Authority and began searching for the shelter immigration officials in Texas had pointed out. After asking for directions several times, they found the shelter but were refused entry because the organization only assists domestic violence survivors, not entire families, according to Anabel.
It looked like the family would spend the night on the streets, until they struck up conversation with the owner of a bodega on 9th Avenue and 39th Street, according to the couple.
When the owner heard the family’s story, he offered to let them sleep in his truck for the night.
“He told me he didn’t want anything from me. That he would let me sleep in his car for the night and would help me find a place to go the next day,” Crisman said.
The next day the owner fed the family and let them hang out in his grocery store.
When Robert Gonzalez, a local resident and activist who frequents the store stopped by, the bodega owner asked Gonzalez to help the family, Gonzalez told CNN.
Gonzalez, who has been helping migrant Venezuelan families for the last two years, asked the bodega owner to take the family to Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing Office in the Bronx. But the family was again rejected. The shelter does not allow dogs.
Gonzalez then reached out to a psychotherapist friend who helped the family start the process to register Max as a service dog, so it could join the family at shelters. In the meantime, a volunteer took Max, and the family spent the next two days waiting for the city’s homeless intake center to process their paperwork.
The family now lives in a shelter in Bushwick, Brooklyn. And even though they finally have a warm bed to sleep in, they still feel like they’re in limbo, they said, even though they’re grateful to have made it to the United States.
“The father can’t work,” Gonzalez said. “Until their next court date, they don’t have permission to work so they must rely on people like me who are willing to help. It’s worse for Venezuelan migrants because they’re orphans in a sense. There’s no Venezuelan embassy or consulates in the United States they can run to if they need help or a copy of a document from back home.”
This fall, Sebastian and Criszanyelis Urbaez will be a part of the roughly 1,000 children of asylum seekers whom the Department of Social Services expects to enroll in New York City public school, as part of Project Open Arms, a city initiative to help asylum-seeking families with academic and language-based needs.
The family’s next court date is in October 2023, when they will find out if they’ve been given permission to work legally.
In an interview with CNN, Manuel Castro, New York City’s commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, said the city is asking the federal government to step in and provide additional support to the city and expedite work permits for asylum seekers.
“Most of the families I’ve spoken to, they want to get to work, they don’t want to stay in shelters. They just want to contribute to society, they just want to be at peace,” Castro said.
Meanwhile, Max has become a certified service dog.
“We don’t think of him as just a dog. We see him as part of the family.” Anabel said. “The children wouldn’t have forgiven us if we left him behind.”