The jury is still out on whether Columbian rapper Ever Antonio López Salcedo got lucky. In November 2022, after crossing the Rio Grande with his partner, Genesis Betancourt, and their toddler, Melanie, he was apprehended and taken to a border patrol station in Laredo, Texas. There the family won temporary asylum while U.S. immigration courts consider whether to expel them or make their asylum permanent. The Lopez-Betancourt family got in before the Supreme Court closed the border. But President Joe Biden has introduced a new version of the rules that former President Donald Trump instituted to discourage overland migration. Now, like thousands of other asylum seekers, his family’s hopes ride on America’s flip-flop border policy.
Speaking through an interpreter at a temporary guest house in Hayward, California, the Lopez-Betancourt family described the five-week, 2,500-hundred-mile journey from their former home on the Columbian-Venezuelan border. They traveled mainly with two other Columbian families they met along the way. Thumbing through her smartphone, Betancourt showed a video of Melanie clinging to a rope to control her descent down a muddy jungle slope. At times their band joined other refugees in pedestrian caravans of up to 200 people. One night, while camped near a river in Panama, a sudden flood drowned four people. Melanie sucked leche through a straw, following the conversation with her eyes as her parents’ account was translated into English.
Lopez laid his case for asylum on the table, unfolding a damp, creased newspaper article to help prove that his family had fled the sort of “credible threat” that might persuade an immigration judge to grant them permanent status. The headline read, “Un deportado le canta a la frontera” – a deportee sings about the border. The article called Lopez by his rap handle, “Klever El Acertijo” or “Klever the Riddler” a play on his first name. An excerpt from the story, translated by AI, reads:
“Ever Antonio López-Salcedo (is) a Colombian who was deported from Venezuela last August. Better known as … Klever (he) promotes his song ‘Frontera Caliente’, which talks about the harsh reality lived by the inhabitants of the Colombian-Venezuelan border …”
Running 700 miles on either side of the Arauca River, this region was dubbed the “Hot Border” in a book titled, “La Frontera Caliente entre Columbia and Venezuela.” Published in 2012, it describes this expanse as “a virtual mafia state … where the actions of organized crime cannot be distinguished from some state institutions.” In the decade before the book’s publication, 30,000 homicides occurred in this region where fuel and drug smuggling run rampant and both governments vie for control with drug traffickers, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and each other.
Lopez recorded his Frontera Caliente rap in 2017, a year after Venezuelan authorities bulldozed the home where he and Genesis had been living with other Columbian settlers on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca during the years it had been the safer side. That changed as President Nicolas Maduro tightened his grip on that oil-rich nation, and the neighborhood rivalry grew more heated as the U.S. pressured Columbia to help contain Venezuela. The music video cuts from scenes of Klever strutting through crumbled concrete buildings to clips of refugees carrying mattresses and TVs through shin-deep water. La Opinion newspaper in Cucuta, the largest city on the Columbian side, ran a full-page spread on Lopez. That spurred sales and brought in some money, but music had always been his side hustle. He installed windows, ran a mobile pizza van, raised chickens, and did odd jobs. The notoriety made him nervous. Although he didn’t get overt threats people began making remarks that convinced him to take some of his provocative raps off his social media feeds. He also moved to Bogota, about 350 miles from Cucuta.
Eventually, he thought it safe enough to return. But in May 2022, someone spray-painted “Sapo” on his house. It meant toad in English and was slang for a snitch. The threatening message implied that he was collaborating with paramilitaries against local guerrillas and border gangs. Lopez and Betancourt decided they had to leave their “virtual mafia state” and risk the quest for asylum. They sold their house, motorcycle, and other personal belongings, raising the $4,000 it would end up costing them for food, some bus trips, and the bribes they paid along the way. They left alone toward the end of September but soon met two other families leaving the Frontera Caliente. They traveled north together, hoping to lessen the chances of being robbed by the coyotes they paid to shepherd them around border checkpoints. Lopez said Melanie supplied the joy that helped make the trip bearable. To her, it was one long adventure. He shared a video clip of her wearing rain boots and stomping in a mud puddle.
They made their final, most perilous crossing at night, traversing a stretch of the Rio Grande that flowed so fast it nearly carried away one family. As the shivering travelers regrouped and made their way inland, they chanced upon Samaritans who gave them dry clothes and food and aimed them at Laredo, where they could present themselves as asylum seekers. They never made it. Cameras and heat-seeking sensors detected them as they tried to avoid the highways and travel through the countryside at night. When border patrol agents surrounded them, they almost lost hope, fearing they’d be turned back. But once they surrendered, the agents brought them to Laredo. Within days all three families had been granted temporary asylum and permission to work while they awaited a hearing in immigration court. The other two families headed east, to New York. The Lopez-Betancourt family headed west, to Hayward, California, where another Columbian refugee they’d met along the way knew of a woman who would supposedly house and feed them in return for work.
But Lopez said they soon realized it was a scam. The woman sent them door to door to sell kitchenware and recruit other sellers in a multi-level marketing scheme. They sold almost nothing, while she charged them for living expenses that ate away what little remained of their savings. Shortly before Christmas, however, fortune smiled on the couple when the minister of a church in Hayward lined up a family to host them temporarily.
Looking back, Lopez said if he had realized how much trouble the rap would cause, he probably wouldn’t have recorded it. But he left Columbia with no illusions. He knew that under the best of circumstances, he’d have to start with nothing, find work, and earn enough to pay rent. He didn’t expect the American Dream. He expected his family to be safer and better off than in Columbia.
Thousands of other families, each with their own story, had started north from Central and South America in anticipation that President Biden would lift Trump-era border controls. In mid-December, U.S. media showed images of asylum seekers freezing on the streets of El Paso. On December 17th El Paso mayor Oscar Leeser told The Guardian newspaper that his city might soon become a waystation for as many as 150,000 asylum seekers each month. Then the Supreme Court order and the new Biden policies changed the dynamic.
How will these developments affect the flow of new refugees and the fates of those who have already crossed the border and now await their turn in immigration court? What responsibility do we as a people have to help those who present themselves at our border to seek asylum? How will the immigration system provide each family case-by-case attention as the law currently demands? Where will asylum seekers stay? How will they support themselves? And so on.
Lopez has already found a job but getting to it requires him to make a two-hour round-trip bike ride each day. Maybe they’ll luck out when they relocate at the end of the month and find quarters closer to where he works. Ultimately the question is whether the system will send them back or let them stay. The answers won’t come easily. Americans face many issues while lacking a common purpose. But whenever I reflect on this, I see Melanie watching me over a glass of milk as if to say, you’re the grownup. You figure it out.
Listen to the rap, Frontera Caliente, here.
Read the La Opinion story about “Klever the Riddler” here.
Learn about the book, “La Frontera Caliente entre Columbia and Venezuela,” here.
Read the December 17th, 2022, Guardian article here.
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