Expansion of this immigration program could help thousands of Venezuelans in Utah

Sep 25, 2023, 9:01 AM | Updated: 10:40 am

Jose and Arelys Weffer stand with several hundred Latinos gathered Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, at the ...

Jose and Arelys Weffer stand with several hundred Latinos gathered Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, at the Utah Capitol calling for help for Venezuela. Thousands in Utah will likely benefit from a program allowing them to legally live and work in the U.S. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah may not be a top destination for Venezuelans fleeing their home country, but thousands in the state will likely benefit from the expansion of a program allowing them to legally live and work in the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security announced last week its decision to extend temporary protected status, also called TPS, to Venezuelan migrants who arrived in the U.S. by July 31. The previous cutoff date was March 8, 2021.

“We know that nationwide they expect that this will affect about 400,000 Venezuelans,” said Carlos Trujillo, a South Jordan-based immigration lawyer. “We definitely do not have the majority here, but we do have thousands of these newcomers that will be able to take advantage of this new program.”

Mayra Molina, director of the nonprofit Venezuelan Alliance of Utah, said over 200 people have contacted the alliance since the announcement Wednesday.

“It is excellent news for our community; many people couldn’t apply before and now can come out of the shadows and work legally,” she said.

Venezuelans are the fastest-growing Hispanic group in the U.S. as millions flee repression, food scarcity and economic turmoil in their home country; 2020 census data shows nearly 10,400 Venezuelans live in Utah.

Natalie El-Deiry, director of the Utah Center for Immigration and Integration, said the state is working with community partners to help meet the Venezuelan community’s needs so they can contribute to Utah’s economy.

“Generally, Utah is not a destination site for new Venezuelan arrivals in the interior state, but we are aware that the number of Venezuelans is growing around the Wasatch Front,” she said.

Mixed emotions

The announcement offers some temporary relief to Venezuelans. But excitement over the announcement is underscored by frustration, especially since some who had previously applied for temporary protected status are still waiting on a work permit.

“People are frustrated, especially those with pending affirmative asylum cases,” Molina said. “They hear all these great new policies but wonder when they will finally hear back about their case.”

There is some hope that the temporary protected status extension will help clear backlogs, but asylum cases still take years to adjudicate. That wait can be draining for asylees, whose cases could be dismissed if there’s a change in democracy in Venezuela. That type of change is an unlikely outcome of Venezuela’s upcoming presidential election, but Trujillo said it’s still a concern Venezuelan refugees are weighing.

“The wait in United States Citizenship and Immigration Services here in Utah — there are people that have been waiting 10 years for that interview for asylum,” Trujillo said. “If there is a change in democracy in Venezuela next year, anybody that has a pending asylum could be denied … and now they have to go back, regardless of how long they were here or whatever they did here in the last 10 years, it’s just done.”

Clearing up misconceptions

Critics have argued the extension will encourage more Venezuelans to make the treacherous journey to the U.S. But Eric Welsh, a partner at Reeves Immigration Law Group, said that’s not the case.

“TPS is not an invitation for Venezuelans to come to the United States,” he said. “It’s meant to help those people who are already here, who have already managed that terrible, long journey, and who are in a circumstance where they can’t go back, but it’s certainly not meant to be an open door for Venezuelans to come now.”

Trujillo and Welsh also stressed that temporary protected status is not a form of amnesty. In fact, countries are only designated for the status for six to 18 months. The Department of Homeland Security can, however, renew a country’s designation. Somalia, for example, has had temporary protected status for the longest period of time (since 1991) due to the country’s ongoing civil war.

“This is a temporary program that can be lifted and revoked at any time, by any administration. Therefore, any mischaracterization of this program as an amnesty and giving work permits to illegals or anything like that — it’s not like that,” Trujillo said. “There is no path whatsoever under TPS alone to go from the work permit to residency and to citizenship. So any type of argument that the administration may be seeking new voters or anything like that is a lie.”

The only way for temporary protected status recipients to become citizens or permanent residents would be through a separate immigration program, such as a family-based visa or asylum. The program also fills a gap in U.S. humanitarian immigration laws, said Welsh.

“It just provides relief for the most vulnerable population, the ones who don’t have the resources or the connections to find some other lawful route to have permission or permanent status, but who are nonetheless in a very dangerous, precarious situation,” Welsh said. “Asylum is a pathway to permanent status, to a green card if you can show that it’s unsafe for you to go back because your government hates you because of some characteristic that you have. But TPS says, ‘You don’t have to be that particular; we just don’t want you to be in harm’s way.'”

Correction: An earlier version misidentified Eric Welsh’s law firm.

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Expansion of this immigration program could help thousands of Venezuelans in Utah