Quito, Ecuador – After his father died of cancer in a local hospital, Jairo Barrios said he paid a lawyer in Merida, Venezuela $3,000 to help speed up the application process for his Venezuelan passport. Just like the medication his father needed, Barrios’s passport never came.
Facing unemployment and hyperinflation, Barrios left anyway. After crossing Venezuela and Colombia, he said he arrived with $12 in his pocket at the Ecuadorian border in August 2018. Immigration officers allowed him to enter the country without a passport for three months.
Once settled in Quito, he hoped to find work and take advantage of Ecuador’s official currency, the US dollar, to build up savings and send money to his wife and children back home.
But like many of the more than 120,000 Venezuelans in Ecuador without a visa, Barrios, 42, soon found himself faced with an impossible choice: Either work illegally so he could afford the more than $450 needed to buy a Venezuelan passport and apply for an Ecuadorian visa, or not work and try to survive, leaving his family to struggle alone in the face of Venezuela’s economic crisis.
Barrios saw no choice but to break the law.
In November 2018, immigration officers caught him selling cigarettes on the street for $0.15 a piece. They fined him $386 for working without a visa.
“How can somebody pay that if they don’t have work?” Barrios asked. “They have to understand that. We came here to overcome. We all came here to work.”
Between November 2018 and April 2019, Al Jazeera spoke to 10 Venezuelan migrants who found themselves suddenly in debt in Ecuador after getting hit by immigration fines they can’t pay because they are not legally permitted to work.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled their country since 2015 due to the deepening political crisis, hyperinflation, unemployment and food and medicine shortages.
Ecuador’s immigration laws allow Venezuelans to enter the country using only their national ID card because both countries are founding members of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, but they do not have permission to work and are only afforded the same legal rights as tourists in Ecuador unless they receive a long-term visa. In March, Ecuador announced it was leaving UNASUR, but as of this month the country was still offering UNASUR migration privileges to Venezuelans, according to the Civil Association of Venezuela in Ecuador.
If someone without a visa is caught doing anything that makes them money, he or she risks getting fined $386 – nearly 88 times the minimum monthly wage in Venezuela. Those who don’t acquire a visa before their initial permission to be in the country expires are fined $772, and those who rack up multiple fines risk deportation.
“Basically what we’re seeing are fines that are uncollectible because the people getting fined can’t afford their high costs,” said Javier Arcentales, a lawyer with Ecuador’s public defender who is part of an ongoing lawsuit aimed at modifying a 2017 law that expanded the definition of immigration transgressions.
Oliver Blanco, 25, arrived at the Ecuadorian border in August 2018 with $5 and no passport. Last November, he was fined $386 for working for a local market in Quito.
Ecuadorian visas cost between $130 and $450. Most Venezuelans, including Blanco, qualify for the $250 UNASUR visa.
Blanco said there is only one option he can see if he wants to buy a passport, pay off the fine and buy a visa: work without proper documents.
“What am I going to do?” he asked. “Keep working.”
Fines apply to anyone who breaks immigration laws in Ecuador, regardless of their country of origin. But Daniel Regalado, director of the Civil Association of Venezuela in Ecuador, said the laws unfairly impact Venezuelans because of the impoverished conditions they arrive in and are fleeing from.
It can also take months for migrants to receive key documents like a Venezuelan passport or criminal background history, which further prolongs the risk that they are fined before they can apply for a visa.
“Other countries can provide the right documents for their citizens. But for Venezuelans […] they practically don’t have a country that represents them,” said Regalado.
The Venezuelan embassy in Quito did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) declined to comment.
Ecuador’s Subsecretariat of Migration denied multiple requests by Al Jazeera for the number of immigration fines issued to Venezuelans in 2018, citing privacy laws.
Ministry of Foreign Relations and Human Mobility Ambassador Jorge Icaza offered a solution for those who can’t afford to pay their fines.
“We invite them to leave the country,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ecuador has received an estimated 15,000 asylum applications from Venezuelans. In April 2019, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Relations and Human Mobility did not know how many had been granted asylum, only saying that there were “very few cases”. In February 2019, a different spokesperson from the ministry had told Al Jazeera the number was zero.
“To say that ‘I can’t buy food, I can’t buy medicine,’ that is a problem in every country,” Icaza said.
He added that Ecuador’s economy is not “buoyant” and that “the cost of visas and the cost of fines” are part of the country’s revenue.
A spokesperson for the ministry pointed out that an estimated 105,000 Venezuelans have received visas in Ecuador since 2014.
Unless Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno issues a decree that halts immigration fines, anyone that breaks immigration laws in Ecuador is still subject to them, Icaza said. “We consider it to be a delicate, vulnerable situation, but we can’t break our own laws.”
Meanwhile, Venezuelans without visas risk being subjected to unscrupulous employers who hire them informally and pay unfair wages.
Lucero*, a 33-year-old Venezuelan woman, was one of many Venezuelans interviewed by Al Jazeera who alleged they had been exploited by an employer because of their legal status – a common transgression that Ecuador’s government has been trying to crack down on over the past year. Lucero arrived at the Ecuadorian border cashless after spending all her savings, $100, on travel from Venezuela.
She said she was forced to work more than 100 hours a week, for the minimum wage of $386 a month, by a family in Guayaquil that hired her as a live-in caretaker for an elderly relative. When she complained, the family told her they could fire her and find another Venezuelan woman on the street who would take her job for less.
She saved up enough money for a visa but her application was denied. One of her documents from Venezuela had expired while she was waiting for the visa appointment.
During that same exchange with the immigration officer, she was then told that she was being fined $772 for being in the country without a visa.
“I’ve never thought of not paying it. If I’m thinking about establishing myself in this country I have to be legal and straight in everything,” said Lucero, who has since quit working for the family.
“But I haven’t found a stable job here.”
*Name has been changed at the request of the individual due to fear she would be targeted.