Getting his family to the US was a lengthy process for Josh Holt
Editorial note: This is the latest in a series of articles related to the KSL Podcast, “Hope In Darkness.” Find all of our episodes and coverage here.
SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah man arrested and held in a Venezuela prison for nearly two years is providing new details about the behind-the-scenes efforts to bring his family to the United States in the latest episode of his new podcast.
Josh Holt and his wife, Thamy, planned to bring her daughters, then just seven and four-years-old, to the United States with them soon after their June 2016 wedding in Venezuela. But their arrest on June 30, 2016, put those plans in jeopardy and set the stage for a lengthy and complicated negotiation process.
Josh Holt’s family supported his decision to travel to Venezuela to get married, but they did have some misgivings.
“I told him, that’s a — that’s a big step. You know, your getting married in itself is a big step, but you’re becoming an instant family. And you’re going to another country to do it,” Jason Holt, Josh’s father, said in the latest episode of his son’s podcast, “Hope In Darkness: The Josh Holt Story.”
While Josh Holt had met Thamy in person in the Dominican Republic before asking her to marry him, he had not met her daughters, Marian and Nathalia.
“I didn’t meet them until I got to the house for the very first time on June 11, 2016,” Josh Holt said.
He had no idea what to expect, and at just 24, figured he had a lot to learn.
“I get there, and now I’m thinking, ‘OK. These are now going to be my stepdaughters. And I’ve got to make a relationship with them,'” he said. “And I had talked to them and seen them in videos, and they were super, super cute. They had always said super cute things. But now this was real. This was — they’re right there in front of me. And now I had to talk. And I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to talk to them. I didn’t know how to be a dad.”
Then, before he could do much learning, he was arrested on June 30, 2016, in a raid on Thamy’s Ciudad Caribia apartment complex.
“The hardest thing”
As soon as Josh Holt was arrested, his wife, Thamy, called her mother, Maria Candelo. She asked Candelo to watch her daughters while she tried to find out what happened to Josh.
When Thamy Holt was also arrested a short time later, the girls’ care fell to Candelo.
“To be separated from the girls was the hardest thing in my life,” Thamy Holt said through a translator on the podcast.
She found out later the separation was very difficult on the girls as well.
“Of course, her mom wouldn’t tell us this, but afterwards, Thamy started talking to her mom, and her mom said, ‘Yeah, they would wake up in the middle of the night just screaming for you,'” Josh Holt said.
Not long after they became separated from their mother, the girls were separated again – from each other. Nathalia, the younger of the two, lost her father to a car accident before Thamy met Josh Holt. Marian’s father was still alive; he and Thamy became parents as teenagers and never married.
“About two or three months after [I became] a prisoner, he took [Marian],” Thamy Holt said in Spanish. “The girls were separated. And they saw each other on weekends or when my mom brought them to visit me.”
A lengthy and complicated process
Because Marian’s father was both alive and involved in her care, the Holts decided to focus first on what they needed to do to help Nathalia.
Thamy Holt worried, with the escalating unrest in Venezuela, what would happen to her daughters if something happened to her mother or Marian’s father? Where would they go? Who would take care of them?
“We worked a lot, asked [for] a lot of help, signed a lot of papers so that my mom would have total responsibility for her,” Thamy Holt said. “I ceded my rights to her as the grandmother so that my mom could do for her what she saw as right. And [Josh’s mom] and my mom agreed about sending Nathalia to the United States.”
Jason Holt described the process of bringing Nathalia to the United States as both lengthy and complicated.
“We tried for a long time to get her here,” he said. “But then we could just never get the forms we needed in Venezuela, or the judges wouldn’t sign something. They wanted more money, they wanted this, they wanted that.”
“Nathalia needed a visa. She needed signed permission to leave. And it was very difficult, it was very difficult through this process,” Thamy Holt said.
“We tried for a year to get the justice system for children to go into the prison, just so Thamy could sign a paper,” said Jason Holt.
The “bridge” between two countries
Carlos Trujillo, a Venezuelan native and immigration attorney in Utah, came to the United States at the age of 19.
“At that moment, [the late Hugo] Chavez was starting to show some of his dictatorship tendencies, and my parents decided to send me over to Salt Lake City with an aunt who had been living here,” Trujillo said.
He heard about the Holts’ case through the news, but became personally involved at the request of Elder Abraham E. Quero, an Area Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had known Trujillo as a young man in Venezuela. Elder Quero, who visited the Holts at El Helicoide, remembered Trujillo and thought perhaps he could help move their case along.
Over time, Trujillo became what he described as a “bridge” between the Holt family in Utah and the legal team on the ground in Caracas. He understood how the systems worked in both countries and could help navigate a world completely foreign to both the Holts and Thamy’s family in Venezuela.
“Thamy had a clear idea that she really wanted the girls out,” Trujillo said. “We had to circumvent and find ways to get permission slips, power of attorneys, and things like that, and in a country when pretty much everything is not moving forward. There’s not even paper to print a birth certificate.”
A corrupt system
Eventually, Trujillo and the Holt family realized that working the system through proper legal channels would not work.
“Finally, my parents were just like, ‘Well, is there a different way that we can do it?’ And so, Thamy said, ‘Yeah, there is, if you want to pay for it.’ And so we ended up having to pay a judge $800 to allow her mom to just sign a piece of paper,” Josh Holt remembered.
“$800? I would’ve paid that in a heartbeat six months earlier. $800, are you kidding me?” Jason Holt said. “I would’ve borrowed or something, do whatever we had to.”
They still needed to figure out the logistics, but it was a huge step in the right direction.
“All the paperwork was ready. Then the other concerns came about, as far as, ‘Are they going to let her get out of there? How is she going to enter the United States?'” he said.
By February 2018, everything was in place to bring Nathalia to the United States.
A happy landing
Carlos Trujillo and his then-nine-year-old daughter flew with Laurie and Jason Holt to Miami to meet Nathalia and take her home to Utah.
“My daughter could speak both languages. My daughter had, you know, knowledge of what we’d been working [on], and she knew what we were doing,” Trujillo said.
He hoped having someone closer to her own age who could speak her language would ease Nathalia’s transition. As it turned out, what Nathalia was actually worried about was that her new grandparents would not like her.
“The immigration officials — the cops would come out, and they’d talk to us, and they’d go back in. They’d come out and talk to us and they’d go back in. They would come out and say that she’s crying. She’s so scared. She was telling them, you know, ‘What if my grandma and grandpa don’t like me?’ So that was pretty heart-wrenching, right there,” Jason Holt remembered later.
When she finally emerged, though, she was enveloped in one of Laurie Holt’s famous Mama Bear hugs.
“It was good,” Jason Holt said. “I think she knew that she was loved. And it helped a lot that Carlos had taken his daughter, because it was like she had a friend that could speak Spanish.”
What about Marian?
Marian, Thamy Holt’s older daughter, would wait several more months before she would be reunited with her sister, mother, and stepfather. Thamy understood that Marian’s father had some concerns.
“I wanted to convince him to send Marian with Nathalia. And he always said, ‘No. When you leave, I will let her go,’” Thamy Holt said.
She told him Marian would have a better life with Jason and Laurie Holt in the United States than they could provide in Venezuela.
“[He told me], ‘I don’t care. It’s better that she’s with me because I’m her dad than with people she doesn’t know,’” she said.
When Thamy Holt was released from prison, he promised, he would let Marian go to the United States with her.
According to Thamy Holt, she did not know for sure that he would keep that promise until she was waiting to get on the plane to come to the United States herself, in May 2018. As she waited, she saw Marian’s father drive up with her.
Hope In Darkness releases new episodes weekly on Wednesdays. Subscribe free on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.