Tampa Bay Attorney daughter of immigrants is an advocate for her clients

Vitalia Diaz Shafer helps hopeful immigrants navigate the system
Vitalia Diaz Shafer has practiced immigration law for more than 20 years. (Photo courtesy of Vitalia Diaz Shafer)
Vitalia Diaz Shafer has practiced immigration law for more than 20 years. (Photo courtesy of Vitalia Diaz Shafer) [ Photo: Courtesy ]
Published Dec. 31, 2021

Times Correspondent

Vitalia Diaz Shafer, who earned her degree from Stetson University College of Law, has practiced immigration law for more than 20 years.

The Tampa lawyer, who was born in New York, says she got interested in the specialty because her mother is from Colombia and her New York-born father’s heritage is Cuban and Spanish. “So immigration has always been a thing in our family; somebody was applying for citizenship or getting residency or getting a tourist visa, that kind of thing. And I speak Spanish fluently.”

Diaz Shafer, 47, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the varied pathways and obstacles in front of people trying to immigrate to the United States.

Does every immigrant have to have a sponsor?

No, not necessarily. For instance, when you’re dealing with asylum, you don’t need a sponsorship. If you have been the victim of a crime, there’s no sponsorship necessary. But the easiest way is obviously through sponsorship, through employment or through family petitions. … Sometimes you can invest in the United States but just get a temporary visa, where your visa’s only good as long as your investment. Then you’ve got investments, if you invest $900,000 in a company you can actually get residency, $1.8 million if it’s in an area that’s a bigger city. ...

(Also when) there’s not enough Americans or legal permanent residents who are willing or able to do a particular job. And those people can also get sponsored by an employer.

Right now, there’s a serious (shortage of) nurses. So a nurse, for instance, if they can get sponsorship right now, they can also get residency in the United States.

So that path isn’t just for important scientists.

Unless you are a professional, unless you have a degree, getting something through employment is really difficult – unless you could establish there are not enough Americans or legal permanent residents to do it. For instance, I had an individual who worked on watches and clocks. ... Nobody really works on grandfather clocks anymore… so he was able to get residency because it’s so unique.

How long does the immigration process take?

The easiest process is family petitions through immediate relatives. Someone who gets married to a U.S. citizen. If the citizen, let’s say they’re in England and the spouse is an American. ... It takes maybe a year and a-half for that person to finally get an appointment for an immigrant visa in their country, and then they come over. … Let’s say the couple gets married in the United States. That individual, the applicant, can apply for residency and become a resident in about a year.

Those are the nice, beautiful, easy cases, right? They take a year, a year and a half. …

If you’re not an immediate relative – the spouse of a U.S. citizen, parent of a U.S. citizen or minor child of a U.S. citizen – there’s something called a Visa Bulletin, and it tells you... how many visas... are allotted for this specific category. And then they even break it up into countries. There’s some countries that there are so many people in line waiting that they’ve actually made categories for them by themselves. For instance, the Philippines, Mexico, India, China, they’re all in their own category. And then there’s (one) category for every other country in the world. …

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For a sibling of a U.S. citizen who is Mexican, they’re in Mexico and the U.S. citizen sibling has petitioned for them… currently, for Mexico, they only allot 4,500 or so visas a year for siblings of United States citizens. There are over 700,000 people waiting in line currently. And the Visa Bulletin… currently it says, oh, we’re working on petitions filed in April of 1999. … They only move about two months every year, and in addition, they have this serious backlog. So when you calculate all that, really, a United States citizen petitioning for a sibling, that sibling is going to be waiting over 160 years, the way things are working right now.

Yet in some categories all countries are up to date, you say.

Good news – for years it was backlogged – minor children or spouses of legal permanent residents, in every category across the board, they’re current.

How successful are people who are seeking asylum in the United States?

Personally, unless it’s a really valid asylum case, I let them know these are cases that are so, so difficult. You’ve got some courts where it’s a three percent rate of approval. So 97 percent of the cases are denied.

I’ve worked with, especially, kids from Honduras that are coming here, and the problem is our laws don’t really make it easy for them to get asylum in the United States. … These kids that are coming in, they have to start working when they are 10 because they have to help support the family. … And they’re struggling, because, for example, in Honduras, these kids are trying to go to school and then they’ve got the gangs always trying to target them and make them part of their gang, and if they don’t, they kill them. It’s just a terrible situation, but… our government has said, well that’s just too big of a group. The whole country has a problem; we can’t let everybody in. So you’ve got these children who are escaping these terrible lives and still their cases aren’t strong enough to get asylum in the United States.

You were able to get the government to allow a woman in a deportation proceeding to stay in the country. How?

This was a woman, she was a single mom, she worked at a car wash trying to support four kids and we were able to get her residency… and that was a huge relief to her. …

It’s called “cancellation of removal.’’ You would have to be put into deportation proceeding to apply for that. That is a program that: “Look, you’ve been here at least 10 years before you got put into deportation. You’ve paid all your taxes. You haven’t been arrested for anything. You’ve got children who are depending on you who are American citizens; one of them might have a heart issue. You’re a good person. It’s just, you don’t have the right paperwork.’’ …

Your burden of proof is you have to show that your children or your qualifying relative is going to suffer an exceptional and extremely unusual hardship if you were deported. The burden is pretty high. So those cases are difficult, but when there’s a win it’s a very good feeling.

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