TAMPA — Ground Hog Day comes in March for Williams Paredes and his wife Jennifer Infante.
That’s when they apply to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a stay of removal, allowing them and their two young children to remain in the United States for another year.
The family is resigned to what may become an annual routine. It’s their last option for staving off deportation to Venezuela, where Paredes, 37, believes he faces death for crossing the wrong people while he worked as a police officer.
“We cannot return to Venezuela because of the situation," he said during an interview at the modest two-bedroom apartment the family rents in Tampa. “It would be like sending us to hell. We are praying all day to stay and to live in this great country, with the help of God.”
The family’s plight first made headlines last March when they won their stay of removal — a temporary humanitarian benefit the federal government may grant to undocumented people whose deportation is pending. It lasts through March 26. They had help from a legal team through the Migrants Foundation, a local nonprofit.
Now, they’re preparing their application for another year’s stay. They’ll deliver it again to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on Cypress Street in Tampa.
During their year’s reprieve, Paredes and Infante have worked to build a life for themselves.
Their questionable immigration status led to Paredes’ arrest while he was at work with a Tampa new car dealership. He lost the job.
But then he set up his own small business, working seven days a week operating a mobile vehicle window-tinting shop. Infante is employed as a phlebotomist.
Paredes sees the family as contributing members of their community.
“I learned this job when I was working in a dealership more than a year ago," he said. "Now, a lot of people call me from many places, and to be honest, it feels really good. I never asked for help from the government. I’m a healthy guy and I can work without any problem.”
Their children are doing well, too, he said. He’s proud of the form letter U.S. Sen. Rick Scott sent to son Sebastian, 11, for his high test scores as a student at Egypt Lake Elementary School.
Sebastian hopes to be a doctor or an attorney some day, said Infante, 36.
“He is always worried about others and wants to help people," she said.
As a police officer in the city of Maracaibo, Paredes said, he took part in a major 2013 cocaine bust described as one of the largest anti-narcotics operations in the region’s history. Then he started receiving threatening phone calls. The danger grew. The family obtained tourist visas and fled with Sebastian to the United States in 2014.
As soon as they arrived at Miami International Airport, they applied for political asylum — a status that would give them a more permanent standing as legal U.S. residents. They were denied in 2017.
Since they arrived, they’ve had a second child, Madison, 3. Her status as a U.S. citizen may provide other opportunities for the family to remain in the United States.
Meantime, they anxiously keep tabs on moves by the administration of President Donald Trump to accelerate a deportation process already kicked into high gear under former President Barack Obama. Trump aims to dramatically reduce U.S. immigration overall.
Paul Palacios, an immigration attorney with the Migrants Foundation who is representing the family, said the group will do what it takes to help them remain in the United States — even if that means applying every year.
“We are going to request a humanitarian consideration again and again," Palacios said. "They deserve it. The situation in Venezuela is worse and they are earning a living in Tampa.”
Palacios said he will try to enlist the help of Sen. Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio in the effort.
“They have no other resources," he said. “We can only try to renew this permit for another year. It’s like asking for mercy.”
Immigration judges are receiving a record number of asylum requests, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Judges decided 67,406 asylum cases in 2019, nearly 2½ times more than five years ago. The number of immigrants granted asylum more than doubled from fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2019, to 9,684.
More Chinese nationals were granted asylum than any other nationality, 3,623 in 2019, followed by Salvadorans and Indians. By comparison, no more than 500 Venezuelans a year have been grated asylum recently, even though 28,485 applied in 2018, according to research by PolitiFact Florida.
Aside from the personal danger Paredes sees, Venezuela is undergoing a humanitarian and political crisis from a mismanaged state-controlled economy. Food and health care are unavailable to many. Dissidents have been jailed and tortured. President Trump has slapped sanctions on the government to pressure a change in leadership.
A year ago, Paredes and Infante talked of returning when things settle in Venezuela. It is no longer an option they speak of.
Norma Camero-Reno, president of the organization Casa Venezuela Tampa Bay, said she is saddened to see the suffering and uncertainty facing many Venezuelan families in the United States.
She said the Paredes-Infante case is heartbreaking.
“We hope that everything comes out well,” said Camero-Reno, a Venezuelan native and who has lived in Tampa 38 years. “It’s a hard case and we only hope that we can do something.”
Infante has one goal in her continuing effort to remain in the United States, she said: “We are doing this because I want a better future for my kids.”