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Asylum seekers in Hillsborough losing jobs because of immigration backlog

As of June 30, 1.36 million employment authorizations were awaiting action. The government blames the coronavirus pandemic, a budget shortfall and a lack of staff.
Venezuelan asylum seeker Andrea Montero, 36, submitted her work permit renewal application seven months ago, but lost her job because it expired before the federal government acted on it. Montero and her husband, Carlos Bohorquez, 37, are using their savings to pay the mortgage on their Riverview townhouse.
Venezuelan asylum seeker Andrea Montero, 36, submitted her work permit renewal application seven months ago, but lost her job because it expired before the federal government acted on it. Montero and her husband, Carlos Bohorquez, 37, are using their savings to pay the mortgage on their Riverview townhouse. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Nov. 26, 2021
Updated Nov. 26, 2021

RIVERVIEW — Andrea Montero still hopes for good news to come in the mail before the end of the year.

But for now, Montero, a Venezuelan immigrant who lives in Riverview, is struggling because of the Nov. 5 expiration of her work authorization from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Her employer had to let her go.

“It is a very hard time because everything is totally uncertain,” said Montero, 36. “I feel like it is a whirlwind of emotions.”

She paid $410 and submitted her form I-765 renewal application before her authorization expired in May. The work permit was automatically extended for 180 days until early November.

After that, nothing.

A backlog of renewal requests means a loss of jobs and income for many immigrants like Montero. Members of Congress and immigration attorneys are among those calling on the federal government to expedite the renewal requests, and in the meantime, to expand automatic renewals to 360 days.

A petitioner can lose everything they’ve achieved because of bureaucracy and processing delays, said Javier Torres, executive director of the Migrant Foundation, a local immigrant advocacy group.

“It is an inhumane situation for many immigrants who came to this country to work honestly and improve the living conditions of their families,” Torres said. “Worst of all, this is a situation they cannot control.”

As of June 30, 1.36 million of the employment authorizations were awaiting action. The government blames the backlog on the coronavirus pandemic, a budget shortfall and a lack of staff to process applications.

Unlike most government agencies, Customs and Immigration Services is funded almost entirely through fees paid by users.

Ten Democratic U.S. representatives from Florida, including Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, are seeking an immediate resolution to the problem, per a letter they wrote to Ur Mendoza Jaddou, the director of the agency.

“Our offices have numerous cases of individuals who have applied for their renewals in a timely manner but have already lost or will lose their jobs because their renewal has not been processed by USCIS,” the letter said. Without a work permit, they “can neither work nor maintain important identification documents.”

The letter also cites humanitarian reasons for expediting the authorizations, noting that many immigrants have asylum applications pending because they face oppression and even death in their home countries.

The government is committed to policies that reduce barriers and restore confidence in the immigration system, said agency spokesperson Sharon Scheidhauer.

“USCIS has taken several steps over the last several months to limit processing delays and create the ability to shift resources to high-priority areas where appropriate,” Scheidhauer said.

The agency eliminated inefficient policies that led to the need for an applicant to file several forms to receive the same benefit, she said. It also suspended biometric identification requirements for certain dependents of immigrants.

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Montero is an asylum seeker. Her husband, Carlos Bohorquez, 37, is an assistant television producer whose work permit will expire in a couple of months. Both came to the U.S. seven years ago, fleeing the economic and political turmoil under the ruling socialist regime in Venezuela.

In early 2020, Montero found a job as an operations manager at XPO Logistics Inc., in Ellenton. She gained experience and confidence and took pride in being part of a nationwide operation. She said her supervisors call her every week to inquire about her legal status.

“Everyone asks me if there is something new but I have to tell them with great sadness that I have not received anything yet,” Montero said. “They support me, they like me, but it is a big question mark: Until when? It’s a delicate situation.”

From 2010 to 2019, the Venezuelan population in the U.S. increased 126 percent, to 540,000, a far greater rate than people with roots in any other nation. Earlier surveys showed that about half of Venezuelans in the U.S. live in Florida.

Venezuelans can apply for what’s known as Temporary Protected Status, a shield against deportation for some 320,000 Venezuelans living in the United States that allows them to obtain work authorization. The status runs through September 2022.

Montero and her husband applied for Temporary Protected Status this year, hoping that either this or their asylum application would enable them to stay and work in the U.S. There’s no evidence that applying for both will accelerate the process.

Montero said she is mentally prepared for the loss of her job.

She is using her savings to help her husband pay for the car and the mortgage on their townhouse, as well as for basic bills, including electric, water and cell phone.

“It feels like a low blow,” Montero said. “I want to work because it is my passion and I love what I do. But now it’s a nightmare not knowing when it will end.”