Venezuelan migrants in Chicago cheer US move to speed up permits so they can work

News is welcomed, but Chicago’s legal aid advocates warn they will be overwhelmed and won’t be able to help the more than 10,000 people expected to apply.

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Jose Suarez and Sulanyela Suarez sit under a tree in Chicago’s Humboldt Park.

Jose Suarez (left) and Sulanyela Suarez rest after a soccer drill session with children in Humboldt Park.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Sulanyela Suarez, a recent Venezuelan migrant and former nurse, was overcome with emotion when a friend sent her a message Thursday about the announcement that asylum-seekers would have their work authorizations expedited.

“The chance they’re giving us to work, it’s overwhelming for us,” the 30-year-old Suarez said. “And in my field, it’ll open doors.”

Suarez, who arrived in Chicago with her family in June, is one of thousands in Chicago and among the hundreds of thousands nationwide who will potentially benefit from the plan announced last week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Biden administration announcement will accelerate the processing of work authorizations. It also will designate and extend for 18 months the temporary protected status for Venezuelans who were in the U.S. on or before July 31.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Brandon Johnson and others called for the action, saying it is especially needed in Chicago, where migrants have flooded the city’s shelters as they await work authorization.

A majority of the more than 14,000 migrants who have arrived in Chicago in the last year are Venezuelan, including at least 59% of the 8,360 people in the city’s 20 shelters, according to city data.

Legal aid providers will begin processing the work authorizations when more guidance is issued.

Eréndira Rendón speaks at a podium outside The Resurrection Project in Pilsen.

Eréndira Rendón said the Resurrection Project in Pilsen, which provides legal assistance to new immigrants, is awaiting word from the federal government about next steps since it speeded up work permits for Venezuelans.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“We don’t know the rules yet,” said Eréndira Rendón of the Resurrection Project, a Pilsen-based organization that provides legal aid to recent arrivals. “The next step is the federal government needs to publish rules to guide us.”

Among the outstanding questions: What will the enrollment period be, and how will the expansion include migrants who lived in other countries between leaving Venezuela and coming to the U.S.?

Rendón warned that Chicago’s legal aid advocates will be overwhelmed and won’t be able to help the more than 10,000 people expected to apply.

The longtime immigrant rights organization receives $12.5 million annually from the state to help with immigration legal services, including deportation defense and helping people become citizens.

That money through the Illinois Access to Justice Program helps cover 6,000 legal screenings a year.

Resurrection Project doesn’t have a large enough staff to handle the anticipated large number of work authorizations, Rendón said.

Those unable to get aid through nonprofit providers could wind up having to pay thousands to apply for temporary protected status privately, said Paula Roa, an immigration attorney who’s been providing legal assistance to migrants at police stations.

Applying for legal status through a private attorney could cost around $2,000, Roa said. That doesn’t include other fees, including $410 for a work authorization application.

The number of fees and forms involved could drive migrants to unqualified sources, Roa cautioned. The city should instead support legal aid clinics to make sure they are prepared to take on the migrants, Roa said.

“These people want to work. They want to be sustainable. They don’t want to be in this tent city,” she said. “The faster they can get work is the faster they cannot be a burden on the city.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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