From violence to homelessness: Columbian migrants’ journey to Silicon Valley

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When Elbert Arias and Keila Castillo married in 2014, they envisioned raising a family in their coastal hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia. Castillo would care for the children while Arias worked. Arias, with a degree in nutritional science, had a job in the meat industry, and life was good—until the cartels came to town.

Violence took hold and his cousin was killed by gang members. Arias and Castillo, with an 8-year-old daughter and 1 1/2 -year-old son, had no option but to flee their homeland.

Throwing some clothes, baby supplies and toys into a suitcase, the family flew north to Mexico—hoping luck latched on for the ride.

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Arias and Castillo are among roughly 400 Colombian migrants who were sent to Santa Clara County in the past two months with no resources or help. There’s been an unexpected surge of Colombian migrants in the area, county officials said, and their hands are tied — there is little they can do to support them.

Local organizations and churches are stepping up to help, and many have reported a spike in requests for food, shelter and basic supplies.

Arias and Castillo said they were sent to San Jose by ICE, which funded the trip. Others were led here by dishonest “guides” who claimed there would be resources for them, according to county officials.

The family first landed in Mexico about two months ago. A sympathetic customs officer, who had once been an immigrant, let them through.

With an infant and frightened daughter in tow, they walked for miles through Mexico. The Sonoran Desert, a sandy graveyard between Mexico and the U.S. border, had already claimed thousands of migrant lives since 2000.

“We could see bullet casings scattered all over,” Arias, 31, told through a Spanish interpreter, his eyes welling with tears and his body trembling.

When the family reached the U.S. border days later, they asked for asylum, and a case was opened. U.S. officers tossed their belongings, allowing only a Ziploc bag worth of documents into the country.

“We ended up with just the clothes on our backs and our wedding bands,” Arias said.

The family stayed at a holding facility in Arizona for a few days until a host family in Santa Clara County volunteered to take them in. After traveling more than 5,500 miles, they arrived in Silicon Valley roughly four weeks ago.

Santa Clara County, which has a sanctuary policy, is home to roughly 200,000 undocumented immigrants, according to officials. The county, one of the wealthiest in the nation, is already struggling to get a grip on its housing and homelessness crises, where more than 10,000 people are sleeping on the streets.

Now the county is scrambling to find resources for the hundreds of Colombian migrants, many of them escaping violence back home and being misled to believe they’ll have help and resources here.

Keila Castillo (left) and Elbert Arias (right) decided to take their young children on a treacherous trip to the U.S. to escape Colombia after Arias’ cousin was killed by gang members. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Ending up homeless

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) paid for the Arias family’s trip to Santa Clara County after they found a host family. The agency also gave them a phone to check in with ICE officials daily. The host family volunteered their living room, but after a few nights, the Colombian family said they were forced to leave. The host family’s landlord threatened to evict the renters for having too many people in the home.

With a language barrier and no idea where to find shelter or food, the family became homeless and ended up in Roosevelt Park in San Jose. Then luck appeared.

Resident Jessie Arevalo was walking her dog when she met the family. She listened to their story and decided to help, bringing food, clothes, and toys. Arevalo’s father gifted Arias a bike so he can get around.

“I just couldn’t stand by,” Arevalo told

A friend of Arevalo paid for a hotel room so the family could get off the streets. A local food pantry provides food, but without stable housing, Castillo worries about her children having to sleep outside again.

“My husband is trying to find a job,” Castillo, 25, told “But he doesn’t want to leave us without a stable place to stay.”

At the free farmer’s market hosted several days a week by Lighthouse Ministries, Pastor Ralph Olmos said he has seen as many as 10 Colombian families per day.

Amigos de Guadalupe community organizer Jennifer Parra said Santa Clara County has always had a population of refugees—especially from South America—but never at this volume. Amigos de Guadalupe is a San Jose-based youth advocacy nonprofit, and Parra helped interpret for Castillo and Arias.

“Right now we’re seeing a high influx for sure,” Parra told “People need help the most with housing and jobs, but they also need things like diapers and baby formula.”

The family lost most of their belongings once they crossed into the U.S. borders. The couple’s wedding bands were among a few things they manage to keep. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Not much help 

Many Colombian families arriving in Santa Clara County come under tourist visas—with the intention to overstay, Zelica Rodriguez-Deams, director of the county’s immigration affairs, told

Tourist visas expire after 180 days. Under this designation, Colombians can’t take advantage of county resources, including social security and food services because the federal government does not consider them refugees like Ukrainians and Afghans. This makes Colombians recently arriving in Silicon Valley undocumented immigrants once their tourist visas expire, Rodriguez-Deams said.

The county said many families arrive under a false impression that designated resources and housing are available. County officials have been working with the Colombian consulate on an education campaign.

“We support all immigrants in the pursuit of safety and opportunities,” Rodriguez-Deams said. “But let’s have clear expectations, right? There’s no carve outs for these families.”

Santa Clara County has connected many Colombian families with refugee resettlement services, Rodriguez-Deams said, but only a few qualified as political refugees.

“For folks who do not have status, there are limitations on what they’re eligible for—in housing or otherwise,” she said. “They should expect long waitlist on just about everything.”

Rodriguez-Deams said Congress needs to designate Colombians as refugees to receive resources.

The Board of Supervisors referred inquiries to County Executive Jeff Smith, who did not respond to questions about the Colombian migrants.

Nonprofits step up

As the county scramble to find resources for the newly-arrived migrants, local organizations are providing short-term relief. Amigos de Guadalupe organizers have been calling churches and temporary housing programs for families.

“We’re essentially at the forefront of this,” Parra said. “But it’s still very challenging.”

At Lighthouse Ministries, Olmos and his brother Tony Covarrubias have used their networks to connect Colombian families with jobs and housing. Covarrubias has befriended several families.

“We might not have everything,” Covarrubias told, “But we’ll help in any way we can.”

After weeks of waiting, Arias and Castillo recently got into a Santa Clara County shelter and are awaiting their asylum hearing in August. Arias hopes to find a job to give his family some stability. Castillo’s just glad to see her children laughing and playing again. She takes her children Elbert and Sofia to a nearby park everyday.

“Nobody wants to leave their country, and this trip to the U.S. is not something easy,” Castillo said. “We did so to look for a better life not just for ourselves, but for our children.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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