A PEOPLE Reporter's personal journey of immigrating to America and seeking asylum

I was 8 when my mom and dad told me to pick my favorite toys and pack them into one of six suitcases. They didn’t see a future for our family in Venezuela, and they were willing to risk everything to find it in the U.S. — a country full of possibilities.

I was 12 by the time our request for asylum was approved. We battled through adversity together — me, my parents, Jorge and Betzabeth, and my little brother Andres — in search of a better life. It’s hard to imagine going through it without my parents by my side — and I think about my story every day amid the heartbreaking news about children separated from their parents at the U.S. border.

When I think back on my early childhood in Venezuela, the happy memories are shadowed by the times violence affected us directly.

There was the time shots rang through the air while we were stuck in traffic and my dad had to speed away, and the afternoon we were walking home from school when a guy approached us and pulled out a gun. I’ll never forget my mom reaching back to tell my brother and me to get down on the floor of the car, or the way her voice trembled as she told the mugger to calm down, that she’d give him whatever he wanted, as she pulled out her wallet and stepped in front of us.

But the final straw was a demonstration on April 11, 2002, against the corrupt government that filled the streets of Caracas with protesters armed with nothing but the Venezuelan flag. The day turned violent when the marchers encountered supporters of then-President Hugo Chavez outside the presidential palace, and 19 people were killed in the ensuing conflict.

The Russian family shortly after arriving in the U.S.
| Credit: Ale Russian

Less than three months later, on July 1, 2002, we boarded a plane to Miami.

Being able to simply board a plane made us some of the lucky ones. My family had a visa that allowed us to travel into the U.S. (we had visited before) and afforded us the privilege of arriving safely. Without a visa, which is approved by the U.S. government ahead of time, it would have been impossible to fly into the country. My parents would have been forced to make the same desperate choices that are leading thousands of families to America’s Southwestern border.

At Niagara Falls in 2014.
| Credit: Ale Russian

With the political situation in Venezuela growing more dangerous and violent, my parents knew there was no turning back, and applied for political asylum. My dad had been persecuted in Venezuela when Chavez had urged union members and the working class to rebel against the elite — those he claimed had been stealing their money and properties for decades. Since my father and my uncle Nestor worked with rich and politically connected partners on a construction project they managed, my dad became a target and was threatened several times. One time, he was surrounded by people who wanted to reclaim the land and was rescued by his workers, who chased them away with their construction tools.

The situation became more alarming with reports that these confrontations were turning deadly around the country, and someone he knew had even been killed when trying to chase would-be invaders off his land. My dad quickly realized he was in more danger than he initially thought, and he had left the project he was managing and moved us to a different city the year before we decided to move to America.

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This meant we had a case for political asylum and applied in September 2006 — starting a nerve-wracking process in which the U.S. government looks into every nook of your life. Our family’s record had to be perfect. Even an unpaid parking ticket was enough to deny the petition and send us back.

After the initial application, my dad had to prove that our life back in our home country would be in danger before it was approved. The official interview took place in Miami, and we made our way down the Florida peninsula on Nov. 6, 2006 — my mom’s birthday. I had just turned 12 and remember sensing how anxious and worried my parents were.

My dad spent three grueling hours filled with ruthless questions and aggressive interrogation tactics as they asked him to repeat details over and over again, with no one but an appointed mandatory translator to help him explain our desperate need to stay. My brother and I watched movies in the waiting room as the hours ticked by and my mom grew more anxious. Finally, my 42-year-old father walked out overwhelmed and with tears in his eyes, not knowing if we could continue building a life here.

Our request was approved in January 2007 and we were granted a green card and official residency a year later. In August 2013, 11 years after first landing in Miami, we became U.S. citizens.

Ale Russian on the day she became a citizen.
| Credit: Ale Russian

The process had been scary and stressful and long for my parents — but my brother and I had very little idea of the specifics of what was going on, since my parents protected us from any negative detail. We got to be kids and start our lives in our new country because of their constant and calming presence.

Now, over 2,300 kids are going through it all alone. They don’t get to navigate an already scary life change — in a country where they don’t even speak the language — with their parents by their side. They don’t get to cry in their mothers’ arms because nothing around them makes sense, like I did. They don’t get to look up into their fathers’ eyes and know that everything will be okay, like I did.

My parents sacrificed everything, and now the four of us are proud American citizens who positively contribute to society and help make our country better. I strongly believe all immigrants deserve that chance, and I’m so grateful the United States gave one to us 11 years ago.