TAMPA — Luis Quintero was worried.
A 46-year-old Venezuelan immigrant and father of two, Quintero is in the United States on a work authorization from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and his permit was set to expire May 19. A backlog in processing extensions has caused some immigrants like Quintero to lose their jobs.
Then Quintero got news that helped put his mind at ease: His work permit would be automatically extended.
The citizenship and immigration agency earlier this month announced a so-called Temporary Final Rule that increases the extension period for certain work permits, called Employment Authorization Documents, up to 540 days from the expiration date.
“Sounds like good news for working families who came to this country in search of a better future,” said Quintero, who works as a technician at eSmart Recycling in Tampa.
The agency had granted a 180-day renewal extension, but it wasn’t enough to process all the documents in time. The government blames the backlog on the coronavirus pandemic, a budget shortfall and a lack of staff.
The new rule will avoid gaps in employment for noncitizens with pending permit renewal applications and help employers who hire noncitizens, the immigration agency said in a news release earlier this month.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, the agency’s backlog has surged from 5.7 million applications at the end of the 2019 fiscal year to about 9.5 million as of February.
The new rule, which took effect May 4, applies to certain applicants who were already eligible for an automatic extension and who submitted their I-765 renewal application on time. These applicants include Temporary Protected Status holders, asylum seekers, green card applicants and refugees.
After Oct. 26, 2023, the agency plans to revert to 180-day automatic extensions.
Carlos Bohorquez paid $410 and submitted his I-765 form last year, but then had to wait six months for his new permit, which will now expire in 2024. Bohorquez, 38, fled the turmoil in Venezuela for Orlando seven years ago and moved to Tampa two years later.
Despite the difficulties that Bohorquez and his family endured, he welcomed the extension.
“For me it has simply been political negligence, but hopefully a definitive solution will be found for the pending cases,” said Bohorquez, an assistant television producer and a freelance reporter.
The government’s timeframe will allow the federal agency to address staffing shortages, increase efficiency and speed access to employment authorization documents. Unlike most government agencies, the citizenship and immigration agency is funded almost entirely by user fees.
Tampa immigration attorney Paul Palacios said the automatic extension “is a little consolation.” Thousands of applicants have already lost their jobs and may not be able to return to them, he said.
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Palacios said the agency will not reissue notices with the new extensions, leaving applicants to convince employers that their work permits are valid. A work permit also enables immigrants to have access to some benefits, such as renewing a driver’s license.
“Without a government notice granting them the additional extension, this may be difficult,” said Palacios.
Living without legal status makes it harder to stay above water financially, according to a bilingual online survey of 3,375 Latinos in the United States conducted by the Pew Research Center last year.
Javier Torres, executive director of the Migrant Foundation, a local immigrant advocacy group, applauded the decision to extend the period of employment authorization. However, Torres said the measure comes too late for some.
“Other immigrants were no longer called back to work, even with these extensions,” Torres said.
Torres said he knows several cases of families who lost more than $12,000 in income without being able to work for several months.
“Our community suffered,” he said.