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A free legal clinic in a Colorado resort town is helping migrants get work permits


Close to half a million Venezuelans who have migrated to the U.S. since last year are potentially eligible to work here legally. That does not mean they can actually get work permits. The process can be expensive and time consuming, and if migrants can't support themselves, many end up crowding homeless shelters or living on the streets. Aspen Public Radio's Halle Zander reports on one resort community's efforts to help.

HALLE ZANDER, BYLINE: Jose Caraballo left Venezuela for the U.S. a year ago. He traveled from Texas to Pennsylvania and eventually arrived here in the small town of Carbondale, Colo.

JOSE CARABALLO: (Through interpreter) We're hopeful that we'll be approved for TPS, in God's name.

ZANDER: TPS, or Temporary Protected Status, grants new arrivals a work permit and some protection from deportation. Today, Caraballo is at a free legal clinic with his 17-year-old daughter seeking TPS. They're among more than a hundred migrants who came to Carbondale this fall. It's a hub for nearby mountain resorts, which are always hungry for labor.

CARABALLO: (Through interpreter) Since it's a little difficult without any documents here in the United States, for now, we've worked in, well, construction. But it's by the day. It's not consistent.

ZANDER: Claire Noone is an attorney volunteering her time to review, correct and submit some of the newcomers' applications. She says language barriers are a big hurdle.

CLAIRE NOONE: Every form that you turn in to the U.S. government needs to be in English, and it needs to be 100% accurate. You affirm that. And so if there's anything that you don't understand, another barrier to entry.

ZANDER: Caraballo and his daughter want TPS so they can secure stable jobs, provide for their families and rely less on public services. But applying for the first time requires a government fee of $545. And legal support can strengthen an application. But lawyers can be expensive. Attorney Jennifer Smith.

JENNIFER SMITH: You're probably looking at 1,500 to $2,000, 'cause it's not just sending it, right? 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.

ZANDER: Smith and Noone are volunteering to review applications today, but some of the migrants here may have to pay for additional legal support down the line. For now, Smith is ironing out some of the details of Caraballo's application.

SMITH: (Speaking Spanish).

CARABALLO: De Venezuela.

ZANDER: Smith says Americans are accustomed to filling out forms, but people from other countries don't always have that familiarity with official paperwork. And even if their applications are accurate, the Department of Homeland Security says that they can take six months or longer to process. But Smith says there are backlogs at every level of the immigration system.

SMITH: So the system is so broken. It is so broken. It is so outdated. Like, we can't even protect the most vulnerable.

ZANDER: Once granted, TPS is only valid for 18 months. It can be renewed for 18-month intervals. But Noone says that's not a lot of security.

NOONE: 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.

ZANDER: The Trump administration tried to revoke TPS for several countries in 2018, and current policies could change if President Biden isn't reelected next year. But despite that uncertainty, the long lines, language barriers and price tags, Jose Caraballo is undeterred. He's listening to Smith and smiling the whole time.

CARABALLO: (Through interpreter) Always, in spite of the circumstances, in spite of any kind of problem that a human being may have in life, you always have to be smiling, right?

ZANDER: Caraballo and his daughter are planning to submit their TPS applications to DHS this week.

For NPR News, I'm Halle Zander.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Zander, Aspen Public Radio
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