Mounting backlogs in government processing of applications for humanitarian immigration programs are leaving thousands of foreign nationals without the ability to work to support themselves and their families while they wait.
The lengthy processing times—which can take up to a year or more—threaten to undercut the Biden administration’s expanded use of such programs, including Temporary Protected Status.
TPS allows foreign nationals who can’t return to their home countries because of conflict or natural disaster to live and work in the US for 18-month periods. The program serves as a complement to the country’s slower-moving, yet permanent, asylum process.
The Department of Homeland Security most recently extended protections for Venezuelan and Syrian nationals.
But while US Citizenship and Immigration Services has taken some steps to provide relief from the effects of the backlogs, such as automatically extending work permits for existing TPS recipients whose protections are extended, that does little for first-time applicants.
Initial TPS applications for Venezuelans are taking roughly 10.5 months on average to process, leaving them just months before they must reapply.
“Announcement of TPS grants is becoming a little symbolic while the agency struggles to keep up with applications,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
Without approval to seek employment for months on end, TPS applicants may need to rely on support from nonprofits and family networks, or work illegally. Extended work without authorization can count against individuals applying for immigration benefits like green cards.
“They’re left in a situation where they have no good options,” said Lora Adams, campaign coordinator for the TPS-DED Administrative Advocacy Coalition.
USCIS saw a dramatic increase in TPS applications from Venezuela and Haiti beginning in late 2021. Processing times vary depending on the complexities of each case, and applicants could see delays as the agency navigates registration periods for several extensions and designations for new countries, a spokesman for the agency said.
USCIS adjudicators evaluate applications on a case-by-case basis and have a targeted processing time of 180 days, the spokesman said.
Venezuela is one of 15 countries currently designated for Temporary Protected Status. More than three-quarters of Venezuelans lived in poverty last year as the country experienced a years-long economic collapse.
In announcing the TPS designation for Venezuela, the DHS cited widespread hunger and malnutrition, the growing influence of armed groups, government repression, and failing infrastructure as justifications.
As of the end of March, more than 180,000 TPS applications were pending from Venezuelans in the US. DHS estimates 343,000 Venezuelans in the US are eligible for the protections.
Applicants from the country reflect a broad section of society, said Adelys Ferro, program director at the Venezuelan American Caucus. Their ranks include doctors, engineers, and other professionals.
But after having to wait months to be able to work in the US, they are taking the first work opportunities available to them once they finally get their TPS approvals, Ferro said.
“They’re doing jobs nobody else wants to do,” she said. “Everything from doing your yard to picking up trash and working in construction sites.”
When the Trump administration made efforts to roll back TPS, employers warned that doing so would harm the US economy by removing key workers. Some industries struggling with a labor shortage see those immigrants as a potential source of new hiring as well.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Advanced Roofing Inc. was barely aware of TPS until the Trump administration sought to remove protections for about 300,000 people, including several employees of the company, said President and CEO Rob Kornahrens. The program has since become a major recruiting focus for the company, which employs 18 TPS recipients.
“We are hurting so bad for employees,” he said. “That is our number one reason and number two is the work ethic. They appreciate being in this country.”
Nori Gomez, a 25-year-old student at Brigham Young University, came to the US from Venezuela with her family in 2001. She later received protections through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program before receiving a green card after marrying a US citizen.
TPS offered a since of security to the rest of her family. Although her mother and two grandparents were approved, Gomez’s father, brother, and sister-in-law are still waiting nearly a year after applying.
“It would allow my family members to have access to healthcare, which they haven’t had for the past 20 years,” she said. “It would mean being able to get a better paying job that actually provides regular benefits like paid time off and holidays—even being allowed the flexibility of taking the day off because you’re sick.”
Protracted wait times for TPS applicants stem from existing delays in processing applications for other programs like asylum, DACA, or green card applications. Many of those delays came from Trump administration pressure for USCIS to apply tougher scrutiny for benefits like humanitarian relief while losing staff, Adams said.
“They are still digging themselves out of that,” she said. “A lot of this is the ripple effects of what happened over those four years.”
Lawmakers appropriated $275 million for backlog reductions at USCIS, which is largely fee-funded, in a fiscal 2022 funding package. However, in an April hearing, Director Ur Jaddou emphasized the need for more consistent resources to absorb the agency’s growing humanitarian workload.
Congress must recognize that it cannot shortchange the humanitarian work at the agency, said Juan Escalante, digital campaigns director at FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group backed by tech industry leaders.
It also needs to address pathways to securing long-term status in the US for TPS holders who cannot safely return to their countries, he said.
“Hopefully, Congress will realize that people cannot live from renewal to renewal every 18 months,” Escalante said. “In the meantime, we need the government agency who carries out this program to take it seriously.”
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