Frank Sandoval thought he was the luckiest man in the world as he stood, just before 2 a.m. Friday, at O’Hare Airport’s baggage claim, where he anxiously kept checking his phone for messages from his wife and daughter.
They’d spent 24 hours traveling from South America. And Sandoval, of Lockport, couldn’t wait to see them.
He scanned the passengers trickling in. He held a bouquet of red roses adorned with maroon, star-shaped balloons and a blue-and-red ribbon that resembled the American flag.
And then there they were.
“Come, my princess,” Sandoval shouted in Spanish as he spotted his daughter.
It was a reunion five years in the making, made possible when they were granted asylum in the United States.
Massiel Sandoval, now 21, was a teenager when her father had last seen her.
She melted, sobbing, into his arms, and they hugged each other for the first time in nearly five years. That was when Frank Sandoval fled Venezuela for political reasons, seeking asylum.
Arriving with her, Carolina Alemán watched her husband and daughter embrace and held onto the bouquet.
“It was hard being separated from him for so long, including emotionally,” Massiel Sandoval said in Spanish as she held a plush rabbit the family has had since before she was born. “Many things have happened. And I’ve gone through so many things.
“Being with him again is simply the best thing that has happened to me in all these years.”
The family is among more than seven million Venezuelans who in the past decade have left the South American country as it’s been rocked by political and economic instability.
That exodus has reached Chicago in the past year, with thousands of immigrants, many from Venezuela, making their way to Illinois to seek asylum. Many were bused to Chicago from Texas on the orders of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
In Venezuela, Frank Sandoval was a lawyer and supported the opposition party while working in high-level government jobs. He fled in 2018 after getting threats following a demonstration at which he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Respect the constitution.”
“I never wanted to leave my country,” Sandoval said. “Believe me, if I could go back right now, I would. I love my country — or, at least, the country I grew up in, which is no longer there.”
Alemán stayed behind with their daughter, who did not have the proper visa to leave Venezuela and come to the United States. She said life was difficult in Venezuela. She was depressed without her husband.
But early Friday Alemán said she is now optimistic and thinking about enrolling in college once the family settles in.
“This country is giving us the opportunity to start over again,” Alemán said in Spanish. “We are thankful they are embracing us so well and opening their arms to us.”
Frank Sandoval was granted asylum in 2022 after representing himself in immigration court in Chicago. He then petitioned for family reunification. That’s how his wife and daughter were allowed to enter the country, he said. He applied for permanent U.S. residency this year, which his family also will be able to seek.
Immigrants seeking asylum don’t always fare as well. Over the past year, judges in Chicago’s immigration court denied 429 asylum cases, about 36% of them, according to a Syracuse University analysis. There were 741 asylum cases granted in Chicago.
The number of pending asylum cases has grown in recent years from more than 12,000 in 2018 before Chicago’s immigration court to more than 33,700 last year, according to the Syracuse analysis.
Frank Sandoval now works as a paralegal for Joliet-based Spanish Community Center, which has been fielding requests for legal help from hundreds of asylum-seekers who have settled in the Chicago area.
“Today, I got very stressed because what I’m seeing is people fleeing Venezuela without a very strong asylum case,” he said before in the days before his wife and daughter’s arrival. “Sooner or later, we are going to have mass deportations.”
Sandoval said he and other Venezuelan advocates are pushing for the U.S. government to issue a “Temporary Protected Status” designation for new arrivals to lawfully find work.
That designation is now only for Venezuelans who arrived in this country by March 2021.
Alemán and her daughter spent the past few weeks in Colombia, which is where the U.S. Embassy of Venezuela is located. They had an interview May 16 with U.S. officials there before they were approved to come to the United States.
Alemán said she wants to make up for the time apart and is looking forward to cooking traditional Venezuelan hallacas together.
As they left the airport, Frank Sandoval said, “We made it.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.