By Valerie Gonzalez - The Associated Press
During the weeks it took Yeison and Nico to migrate from Venezuela to the United States, they traveled through dangerous jungles and passed over a corpse. They have become so inseparable that Yeison sold his cell phone in order to have the money needed to continue his bus journey.
As Yeison prepares to finally enter the United States, he will likely have to leave Nico behind. And all because Nico is a squirrel.
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The 23-year-old and his pet are an unusual but resounding reflection of the emotional choices migrants make about what to take — and what to leave behind — as they embark on the perilous journey north.
Yeison, who declined to identify himself with his last name for fear of his family's safety in Venezuela, said going without Nico was not an option. But in Mexico they could be forced to part ways.
Nico, a squirrel, perches on the shoulders of his owner, Yeison, in a tent at a migrant camp, Sept. 20, 2023, in Matamoros, Mexico. Valerie Gonzalez / AP
Yeison, who is one of millions of Venezuelans fleeing political and economic instability in their country, got an appointment Saturday to report to the border and apply for asylum in the United States. Normally, animals are not allowed to cross the border.
"(It would be) again starting practically from scratch without Nico," Yeison said.
A special relationship
Many of the people who undertake the journey of approximately 3,000 miles to the United States do so with what they can carry on their backs and together with their loved ones.
In Yeison's case, he is accompanied by a squirrel with a black stripe and specks of white hair, who traveled inside a red knitted cap inside a backpack.
For six months, Yeison and Nico lived in a tent in a settlement with hundreds of other migrants in Matamoros.
They're across the border from the city of Brownsville, Texas, hundreds of miles east of Eagle Pass, which isn't experiencing the same dramatic spike in arrivals that prompted the mayor there to declare a state of emergency this week.
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On a recent day, Nico climbed on Yeison's shoulders and stayed nearby as he ran around the store. The chances that Yeison will be able to take Nico across the border are slim, but the camp volunteers don't give up.
Gladys Cañas, director of the NGO Helping Them To Succeed, said she has met others who wanted to spend with their pets such as cats, dogs and even a rabbit. But never, until now, had he come across a squirrel.
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Cañas helped Yeison contact a veterinarian to document the animal's vaccinations so he could present them to border agents. He hopes to be allowed through, either with Yeison or with a volunteer.
"There is a connection between him and the squirrel, so much so that he preferred to bring it with him rather than leave it with his family in Venezuela and face the problems that come with the migratory journey. They instilled value in each other," he said.
He sold his cell phone to pay the squirrel toll
Yeison recalled that he found the squirrel one day when he was about to step on it in Venezuela. She looked like a newborn and Yeison took her home, where he christened her Nico and her family fed him yogurt. The demanding pet, according to Yeison, prefers to nibble pines and feeds on tomato and mango, even in times when they are hard to come by.
So far more than 385,000 migrants have crossed through the Darien jungle, surpassing the 2022 figure.
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At first, Yeison looked for work in Colombia. When he returned, he found that Nico had a pine splinter in one eye, and decided that he would travel with him to the United States.
Like thousands of other migrants, Yeison had to cross the dangerous Darien jungle, where he said he found the body of a man under blankets.
According to his account, he hid Nico in a backpack as they boarded buses and to pass inspections of checkpoints in Mexico.
But on one occasion, a bus driver discovered the squirrel and made him pay more so that the animal could remain on board. Yeison sold his cell phone for $35 to cover the cost.
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When they arrived at the Matamoros settlement, the couple got used to the routine. Yeison earns money by cutting hair next to her tent and often falls asleep sharing a pillow with Nico at night.
Now he prepares for separation.
"What I wouldn't want is for him to be separated from me, because I know that if he doesn't get sick, I'll get sick," Yeison said. "And if he doesn't get sick, then at least let him be happy. And never forget one's face."