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Kerli poses at the entrance of the group of tents where the 11 people of her family spend the night in the camp set up on one of the beaches of Necocli, Colombia, on Nov. 24.Nadège Mazars/The Globe and Mail

When I chronicled the 7 million Venezuelans who have fled their failed country for the start of a series in January, I put Kerli at the centre of the story. The 24-year-old, who had spent her whole adult life on the road across South America, seemed to embody the hopes and frustrations of her people. Her four-year-old son had been born on the road, and had known nothing else, buoyed by his mother’s optimism and inventiveness.

I’ve stayed in touch with Kerli and her 21-year-old fiancé since then, communicating every day over WhatsApp. They shared photos and videos of their life as they crossed the terrifying jungles of Panama, sold toys and snacks in public squares, and crossed borders at midnight. Kerli shared her feelings and anxieties, as she and her partner searched for a safe country where they could put their child in school, and her shifting plans as they learned of changes to U.S. and Canadian border policy.

On Monday, she went silent. She and her family had been taken by a cartel while crossing into Mexico – a seizure I watched unfold in a flurry of panicked texts and video clips as I sat helplessly in Canada. Forced into a car by a scowling young man after they were unable to pay a US$300 bribe, they faced a fate endured by thousands of migrants every year who are kidnapped, imprisoned, forced into trafficking or prostitution, or killed.

Their decision to enter Mexico had been made with great trepidation, since they knew of the many risks involved. But they saw no other good option: They had tried to apply for asylum in a safe country, but across Central America they had found either rejection or processes that would drag out for at least a year while waiting in countries that didn’t want them.

Migrant organizations informed them in March that their fastest legitimate route to safe asylum was to get themselves to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, get an appointment at the U.S. consulate, and apply for humanitarian asylum.

The border policies announced recently by U.S. President Joe Biden are designed to curtail the sort of risks they faced, by creating tens of thousands of legitimate entry opportunities to deter migrants from making dangerous land crossings. The agreement reached last week by Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is designed, vaguely, to do the same by replacing risky land crossings at unofficial entries such as Quebec’s Roxham Road with safer legitimate slots.

Those well-intended policies, as Kerli discovered, largely benefit only those Venezuelans who can afford the steep bribes needed to get a passport and board a plane. For the tens of thousands stuck on the road, those policies seemed to make it even more necessary to go to southern borders.

Because Kerli is personally targeted by a Venezuelan gang that preys on migrants across Latin America, and has been driven out of four countries by that gang’s threats, her family is a good candidate for resettlement under the UN Refugee Convention. Immigration officials at the southern borders of the U.S. and Canada are among the few able to make that determination almost immediately.

To apply from a third country, you first have to get asylum there, usually through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, then apply for a refugee resettlement or sponsorship process that can take years, even for those whose life is immediately threatened – a lesson learned painfully in 2021 by Afghans who worked for Canadian military and media.

So Kerli and her fiancé saved as much as they could in Guatemala City to make a crossing to Mexico, where they hoped to go first to the UNHCR office in the city of Palenque to apply for asylum.

Then the cartel seized them. “They are telling us that if we leave without paying, they will kidnap us and take our children,” Kerli texted me. “I’m scared.” Then days of silence.

They were taken with other migrants to an industrial lot in a barren area, where cartel members began stripping them of belongings and money. Kerli and her partner spotted a security guard at the edge of the lot, and ran toward him, screaming. The guard took them to immigration authorities, who seized their phones and held them for two nights.

On Wednesday night, my phone buzzed: Kerli and her family were alive and safe. And they had concluded, based on the Mexican immigration officials’ discouraging warnings, that their only choice was to head for the U.S. border – a potentially deadly route that remains, in spite of all this year’s bold new policies, the only decent option for people like Kerli.