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‘The system is so broken’: Legal clinic for Venezuelan arrivals highlights immigration challenges

Roughly 60 refugees from Venezuela sit in Carbondale’s Third Street Center on Dec. 7 to learn how to apply for temporary protected status. Attorneys Claire Noone and Jennifer Smith led the presentation in Spanish.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Roughly 60 refugees from Venezuela sit in Carbondale’s Third Street Center on Dec. 7 to learn how to apply for temporary protected status. Attorneys Claire Noone and Jennifer Smith led the presentation in Spanish.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aquí.

Immigration attorneys held a legal clinic for roughly 60 people from Venezuela in Carbondale last week. Many of the attendees arrived in the Roaring Fork Valley this fall and are eligible for temporary protected status (TPS).

The session covered the TPS application process, but attorneys Claire Noone and Jennifer Smith also discussed legal challenges and flaws in the U.S. immigration system.

People who arrived in the U.S. from Venezuela before July 31, 2023 can be eligible for TPS based on Venezuela’s increased instability and lack of safety, which grants work permits and some protection from deportation.

But Noone said, unfortunately, a lot of the information about eligibility and how to apply are in English.

“It's behind bureaucratic walls of information that people don't understand,” Noone said. “So we were really trying to make it simple: how to go about it and what to do to make sure that you're going to have a strong claim.”

Representatives of the migrant group asked the town of Carbondale for legal support last month because acquiring TPS would allow many of them to secure stable jobs, provide for their families, and rely less on public services.

Alex Sanchez is the President and CEO of Glenwood Springs-based Latino advocacy organization Voces Unidas. He helped organize the clinic to ensure Carbondale’s new neighbors are not scammed when seeking advice on their applications.

“We see a lot of abuses, a lot of fraud,” Sanchez said. “And sometimes it creates more problems for them long-term.”

Sanchez brought Noone and Smith to the community center to help quell misinformation, and the attorneys agreed that certain requirements make applying for TPS difficult to navigate without support.

“Every form that you turn in to the U.S. government needs to be in English, and it needs to be 100% accurate,” Noone said. “You affirm that. And so if there's anything that you don't understand, [that’s] another barrier to entry.” 

Noone said applying for TPS for the first time requires a fee of $545, and while receiving legal counsel can strengthen the application, it also means incurring additional costs.

“You're probably looking at $1,500 to $2,000 because it's not just sending it, right?” Smith said. “It's like, ‘Oh, now we get the receipt notices.’ If the government says ‘We need more evidence,’ then we have to deal with that.”

Sanchez said Voces Unidas is willing to help with some of the fees using their emergency fund, but they don’t have enough money for everyone.

Challenges after submission

Even when someone submits their paperwork accurately, the Department of Homeland Security says some cases take longer than others to process.

Smith hopes it’ll take three to six months, but backlogs at every level of the immigration system make that timeline uncertain, even if applicants have a family member who can sponsor them.

“The system is so broken,” Smith said. “It is so broken. It is so outdated. We can’t even protect the most vulnerable.”

Noone said that even when someone receives TPS, it’s only valid for 18 months, and they have to continue to renew it in 18-month intervals.

“It's never going to provide anyone enough security to take a deep breath,” Noone said. “And it does not offer a path to citizenship. It does not offer a path to residency. It really just protects the people who are already physically here from a very specific country for a very limited amount of time.”

The Venezuelan arrivals are not the only people in the Roaring Fork Valley and Western Colorado who need legal aid for their immigration cases.

Smith said her firm is currently managing roughly 300 immigration cases with individuals seeking asylum or different types of visas and green cards, and some of her clients are frustrated that TPS isn’t designed for them.

“Someone came in and said ‘I have been here 23 years. Why don't I get this?’” Smith said. “And that's really hard to answer because it's like, ‘Well, the government didn't create TPS for you, right? And that's not fair. You own a home, you have a job, you have kids, you pay your taxes, you do all of these things. And I don't have an answer for you.’” 

Despite the long lines, the language barriers, and the price tags, Noone and Smith are hopeful that TPS can be a temporary solution for a lot of the new arrivals from Venezuela. Of all the designations, they say TPS is the easiest to obtain, and they saw a lot of people at their presentation eager to learn about it.

“There is the hunger for knowledge, and so there was a lot of taking pictures of slides, writing down notes, kind of whispering to the person next to them, saying, ‘Oh I think this is us,’” Noone said.

A follow-up clinic will be held in early January to give the migrants one-on-one support for their individual cases and help smooth the transition for more than 100 people seeking opportunity in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.