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It’s been almost two years since Wistong left his home in Maracay, Venezuela, and he said he misses — everything.

“I miss my friends, my house in Venezuela, my dog, my sister, my grandpa … everything,” he told WLRN in Spanish.

Wistong is 13, his curly black hair trimmed into a smooth fade. He’s in eighth grade, and trying to play it cool in the way that teenagers do — but he’s still so young. WLRN isn’t using his family’s full names because of their sensitive immigration status.

Back in Venezuela, Wistong loved to spend his free time at the park by his house, playing soccer with his friends.

“What’s different here is that in Venezuela, I always liked being with my friends in a park or outdoors,” he said. “Here in the U.S., I stay at home watching movies or studying.”

He likes to work out, doing pushups and jumping jacks to build up his small frame, while his mom Jholianis does manicures for clients at a small table in the hallway of the apartment the family shares with a few others.

Wistong said the crisis in Venezuela left his family no choice but to leave. “Because of the situation, things were very expensive. My dad decided to come here,” he explained.

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Venezuelans are now the fastest-growing Hispanic group in the country, according to data from the U.S. Census. Wistong and his parents are among the millions of people who have fled the political, economic and humanitarian crisis under the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

And they took the hard way. In record numbers, Venezuelans are making the dangerous and sometimes deadly trek through Central America to reach the U.S.-Mexico border on foot.

Wistong and his family arrived earlier this year; last week the Biden administration announced they would resume deporting Venezuelan migrants back to their country if they are caught at the border.

“We arrived here on March 30. We spent three months crossing from Venezuela to here,” Jholianis said in Spanish. “We were practically obligated to leave. I didn’t want to.”

They hiked through the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle stretching between Colombia and Panama. It’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous routes for migrants — it’s been called “a green hell.”

Over the course of the journey, Jholianis said all her toenails fell off.

Venezuelan migrant Alejando Colmenares carries his dog on his back as he lines up with other migrants to take a boat in the treacherous Darien jungle in Panama, Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. (Photo: Arnulfo Franco/AP)

For a while, Wistong and the other kids they were traveling with handled it well, Jholianis said, treating it like a summer camp.

But she couldn’t hide the stark realities of the muddy, roadless wilderness.

“I sincerely never thought I’d come here. Nor that I’d bring my child in the conditions that we did,” she said. “But we needed to leave, without question. Because either they’d kill us — or we’d face danger. And I had to leave my two girls over there because we didn’t have the means to all leave together.”

Criminal gangs prey on migrants along the journey. Wistong’s dad, Wistong Sr., said they saw for themselves that some people never make it out of the jungle.

“We spent 10 days walking through the Darién jungle. It was difficult. You would see dead people — lots of them. People were raped,” he said in Spanish, “though it didn’t happen to us.”

They had no choice but to keep walking.

“Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala,” Jholianis recounted. “There were homes for immigrants to stay and we’d stay a night or two. We stayed under bridges. On the street. But there were organizations that would help us to continue the path. They’d give us food, clothes.

“I cried by the time we were in Mexico,” she added. “I thought I couldn’t go on anymore. I was already very exhausted. That’s when I lost a lot of strength.”

In Mexico, they slipped onto a freight train known as the Beast. Wistong’s dad and other men rode on top of the train car, with women and kids inside. In a video he took and posted to Facebook, trees whipped by as they rattled across the countryside — praying for a miracle.

“We are on The Beast now,” he said. “Pray to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Christ of Miracles.”

The family swam across the Rio Grande at 1:30 a.m., they said, and told border officials they had relatives in South Florida.

Once they got to Miami, Wistong’s mom said he saw a therapist for a few months. He would cry about everything he missed in Venezuela.

“Before, when I had therapy, I would start to cry when they would talk about my dog or my sisters that I missed too much,” he said.

Wistong said he doesn’t think he needs therapy anymore. His mom said he doesn’t want to remember.

Editor’s Note: WLRN’s Leslie Ovalle Atkinson and Verónica Zaragovia contributed to this report, which has been edited for readers of the Independent. The complete story can be found here.

Joshua Ceballos

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigative team. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

Kate Payne

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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