Once they cross, many cram into public parks and plazas teeming with makeshift homeless shelters, raising concerns about drugs and crime. The lucky ones sleep in tents and line up for meals provided by soldiers — pregnant women, the disabled and families with young children are often given priority. The less fortunate huddle under tarps that crumple during rainstorms.
The scenes are reminiscent of the waves of desperate migrants who have escaped the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, spurring a backlash in Europe. Yet this is happening in Brazil, where a relentless tide of people fleeing the deepening economic crisis in Venezuela has begun to test the region’s tolerance for immigrants.
This month, the governor of the northern Brazilian state of Roraima sued the federal government, demanding that it close the border with Venezuela and provide additional money for her overburdened education and health systems.
“We’re very fearful this may lead to an economic and social destabilization in our state,” said the governor, Suely Campos. “I’m looking after the needs of Venezuelans to the detriment of Brazilians.”
The tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have found refuge in Brazil in recent years are walking proof of a worsening humanitarian crisis that their government claims does not exist.
They also constitute an exodus that is straining the region’s largely generous and permissive immigration policies. Earlier this month, Trinidad deported more than 80 Venezuelan asylum seekers. In Colombian and Brazilian border communities, local residents have attacked Venezuelans in camps.
During the early months of this year, 5,000 Venezuelans were leaving their homeland each day, according to the United Nations. At that rate, more Venezuelans are leaving home each month than the 125,000 Cuban exiles who fled their homes during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis and transformed South Florida.
If the current rate remains steady, more than 1.8 million Venezuelans could leave by the end of this year, joining the estimated 1.5 million who have fled the economic crisis to rebuild their lives abroad.
As Venezuelans began resettling across Latin America in large numbers in 2015, for the most part they found open borders and paths to legal residency in neighboring countries.
But as their numbers have swelled — and as a larger share of recent migrants arrive without savings and in need of medical care — some officials in the region have begun to question the wisdom of open borders.
Ms. Campos said she took the “extreme measure” of suing the federal government because the influx of Venezuelans led to a spike in crime, drove down wages for menial jobs and set off an outbreak of measles, which had been eradicated in Brazil.
At least 93 people were killed during the first four months of this year, already exceeding the 83 violent deaths recorded last year, Ms. Campos said. And law enforcement officials say drug trafficking in the region has increased as destitute Venezuelans have been drafted into Brazilian smuggling networks.
The population of Boa Vista, the state capital, ballooned over the past few years as some 50,000 Venezuelans resettled here. They now make up roughly 10 percent of the population. At first, residents responded with generosity, establishing soup kitchens and organizing clothes drives.
By last year however, local residents in Pacaraima, the border town, and Boa Vista, the state capital, which is 130 miles from the border, felt overwhelmed.
“Boa Vista was transformed,” said Mayor Teresa Surita. “This has started generating tremendous instability.”
On a recent morning, squatters who took over the Simón Bolivar plaza, one of the city’s largest, were preparing meals on small wood burning stoves. Some napped in hammocks while others stared blankly, having nowhere to go and nothing to do.
The mood was grim. A stomach bug had spread through the camp, leading to bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Adding to their discomfort, neighboring residents, in an act of defiance, had burned a row of bushes near the plaza that the Venezuelans had been using to defecate.
As she watched smoke billowing across the campsite, Ana García, 56, said she could scarcely believe her new reality in Brazil.
She was a homeowner who ate well and lived comfortably on a social worker’s salary in the Venezuelan city of Maturín. But as her paycheck became worthless last year because of soaring inflation, she quit her job of more than a decade, hoping to get a payout large enough to go abroad.
Instead, she walked away with an amount that was so little it only enabled her to buy a small bag of rice, half a chicken and a banana. As food became increasingly scarce, Ms. García set out on a nearly 600-mile journey with her 18-year-old daughter, hitchhiking most of the way.
The first night she slept in the plaza, Ms. García said, she broke down in tears before crawling under a black tarp she now shares with her daughter.
“I never thought we could find ourselves in this situation. We’re not used to living like indigents,” Ms. García said, her eyes welling. “But Venezuela is destroyed. People are dying of hunger.”
As public spaces became increasingly clogged with Venezuelans, the federal government in February took the unprecedented step of tasking the military with assuming control of the response to the refugee crisis.
“There is no historical parallel for this,” Col. Evandro Kupchinski, the spokesman of the task force, said as military personnel cleaned up a stadium that had been taken over by Venezuelans, preparing to turn it into an official shelter. “We’re coming up with solutions as we go.”
Since February, in collaboration with the United Nations, the Brazilian Army has been building temporary shelters with spacious white tents across the city. By the end of May, it hopes to have 11 shelters with a capacity for some 5,500 people.
Venezuelans who have been vaccinated and registered at one of the shelters may apply to be resettled in larger cities in Brazil via a military flight. But that process is off to a slow start because of funding constraints.
The United Nations recently asked international donors to pitch in $46 million to address the crisis during the remainder of this year, but so far it has only secured 6 percent of that goal.
On a recent morning, Mercedes Acuña, 50, said she felt blessed to have been among the first admitted into a shelter. She arrived in Brazil two months ago, rail thin, after an anguishing period during which she joined an ever-growing mob in the capital, Caracas, picking apart piles of garbage for bits and pieces of discarded food.
Ms. Acuña said she had nothing but gratitude for the Brazilians who have helped her, but she has come to agree with those who say it’s time to shut the border.
“I realize we’re all in need,” she said. “But their country is being invaded.”
At the General Hospital of Roraima, the director, Samir Xuad, says the daily patient population has surged from 400 per day to 1,000 over the past couple of years.
That requires working his employees so hard that some of them end up getting sick, too, said Mr. Xuad, adding that he had lost more than 20 pounds from the stress. Medical supplies as basic as syringes and gloves have run out, he said, and during particularly busy periods, patient gurneys line up in hallways.
“We try to make magic,” he said. “But it’s difficult.”
Outside of work, he said, residents of Boa Vista have become fearful of crime and wary of the mobs of aggressive window washers who approach drivers at stop lights.
“Roraima was a place where you could sleep with your door open at night,” he said. “That is no longer the case.”
Throngs of Venezuelan prostitutes now work the streets of a residential area that has become an ever-expanding red light district.
On a recent evening shortly after sundown, three young women stood on a dark street corner, eyeing passing cars and motorcycles.
Among them was Camilla Suárez, 23, who worked at a waxing salon in Caracas until a few months ago. As food grew scarce, Ms. Suárez, who has a toddler, figured that she stood a better chance of providing for her child and her parents by working in Brazil.
“I knew Brazilian women liked getting waxed,” she said.
But as she walked around Boa Vista during her first few days looking for work, doors slammed in her face everywhere she went, she said.
Soon, sex work became a last resort to stay afloat financially and manage, every once in a while, to send some money home.
“There are lawyers, nurses here among us,” Ms. Suárez said.
To steel themselves, she and her roommates have a ritual to endure the work they find soul-crushing.
“We band together to get into a strong mind frame,” she said, “so we don’t break down in tears.”
On a good day, they return to the rented room they share with the equivalent of $90 each. That covers rent and food for a week, plus about $30 to send home.
“With that, my family can eat well for three whole days,” she said proudly. “And I mean well. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.”