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Thousands of Venezuelan migrants in Denver want to work but can’t afford the $545 federal application fee

Migrants share space at a makeshift shelter in Denver on Jan. 13. (Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via AP)
Rose Community Foundation is raising funds to help migrants with the application fee and Gov. Jared Polis had asked the feds to waive it

About 5,500 of the more than 26,000 Venezuelan migrants who have come through Denver in the past several months are still here and the adults want to apply for federal work permits, according to outreach workers helping them start new lives in Colorado.

The problem is that many migrants don’t have a computer to access the applications, the forms are complicated and confusing, especially when English is not the applicant’s first language, and the process comes with an often out-of-reach cost of about $545.

Colorado nonprofits celebrated when the federal government announced in September that Venezuelans could apply for temporary protected status and work permits, but in reality, the process is so daunting that few have actually applied.

“There are thousands of people in our community that we know want to work, but first they have to submit these applications,” said Sarah Kurz, chief impact officer for Rose Community Foundation, which is leading an effort to help migrants enroll at scale.

Lewis and Eleonora, who are married, wait in a processing center in Denver to find out their assignment for temporary shelter May 18. The couple left their home in Venezuela nearly three years ago, struggling to survive amid poverty in their region. Last fall, they made their first attempt to cross the U.S. border from Ecuador. Eleonora left her three children behind in South America, fearing the journey would be too dangerous. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Neither the Denver Department of Human Services nor the state’s Office of New Americans could say how many Venezuelans living in Colorado have applied for work permits. Meanwhile, the city is running out of resources to move migrants from temporary shelters to more permanent housing, and some have moved to encampments along sidewalks and in public parks. One camp that was home to Venezeulans was cleaned up by the city last week.

Gov. Jared Polis has requested “blanket fee waivers” so that Venezuelans can legally work in Colorado as soon as possible.

“The fee is extremely costly for new arrivals,” said Conor Cahill, the governor’s spokesman.

While they wait for a federal response, Rose Community Foundation is using a $500,000 anonymous gift to set up a series of legal clinics where migrants could fill out the application and receive financial assistance. The foundation has plans to cover fees if the federal government does not waive them.

“It’s complicated for those of us who are first English speakers and have the resources,” Kurz said. “It’s much more complicated if you just moved somewhere new.”

Temporary protected status provides people who are already in the United States protection from being deported and makes it easier for them to get authorization to work. The Biden administration granted the status to an estimated 472,000 people from Venezuela and vowed to accelerate work permits, but the migrants still have to apply. And while the announcement came in September, the applications were not immediately available, Kutz said.

The $545 application fee for temporary protected status and a work permit includes a biometric screening to prove the person is healthy and vaccinated.

Nonprofit groups that have been helping migrants find housing, sign up for school and gather donated furniture estimate that there are about 4,500 adults and 1,000 children who have stayed in Denver and need to fill out applications for temporary protected status or work permits. They are among the 26,422 men, women and children arriving in Denver since Christmas, when Venezeulans began crossing the U.S. southern border from Mexico to flee extreme poverty and political turmoil.

Once in Denver, about 7,000 people were given bus tickets to requested destinations, mainly New York City and Chicago, while others were provided shelter in Denver recreation centers lined with cots, or in shelters set up by community organizations and churches. They were allowed to stay in city shelters for a maximum of 14 days, and some left to live outside.

“Some are living on the street, living on couches and they might not realize the opportunity exists much less have a computer and the English skills and the financial capacity to submit the application,” Kurz said.

The 5,500 number includes only Venezuelans who are eligible for temporary protected status because they arrived in Denver before July 31, which is the federal government’s cutoff date.

There is no official count of how many people in all have stayed in Colorado.

“The city and state have been careful not to ask too many questions of folks and their plan to stay here because people are understandably nervous about that,” Kurz said.

And while city officials previously have said that the influx of migrants was not adding to the city’s homeless population, the line between the two groups has started to blur as the migrant crisis continues 11 months after it began. According to the city’s migrant dashboard, 61 more migrants arrived on Nov. 5. The city has spent about $30 million in support so far, with $9 million promised from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and $3.5 million from the state.

Rose Community Foundation, which was created after the sale of Rose Medical Center in 1995, began helping Venezuelan migrants in December. Since then, it has collected more than $830,000 from thousands of individual donors to what’s called the Newcomers Fund. Grants from the fund have helped nonprofits set up housing and helped migrants talk to landlords, complete rental agreements and find food and furniture.

After President Joe Biden announced Venezuelans could get work permits, an anonymous donor gave Rose $500,000, and the foundation started the Newcomers Workforce Fund.

Based on the estimate of 4,500 adults and 1,000 children who have stayed in the Denver area, it will cost $2.5 million to cover application fees for temporary protected status and work permits, she said. And that’s only the paperwork – migrants need longer-term help with housing, job training and other services in order to build new lives, Kurz said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity and it’s very much a Band-Aid approach,” she said.

Colorado’s governor first asked the White House in December to grant temporary protective status and employment authorization for the newly arrived migrants. It came nine months later.

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston this month joined the mayors of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York City in urging the Biden administration to provide more financial support for cities sheltering and feeding migrants. They asked for broader work authorization policy, and a coordinated entry response so that migrants make it to their final destinations.

“We are requesting an urgent meeting with you to directly discuss ways we can work with your administration to avoid large numbers of additional asylum-seekers being brought to our cities with little to no coordination, support or resources,” the letter said.

The Denver nonprofit Organización Papagayo has helped thousands of Venezuelans get cellphones, find apartments and apply for jobs, thanks to funding from Rose Community Foundation. They have linked migrants with vaccine clinics and helped them enroll in schools. Some were signed up for mental health counseling.

“They have gone through tremendous trauma,” said Marielena Suarez, the group’s CEO. “Horrible things. Not just adults, but children, which is inhumane.”

Papagayo, with seven staff members, has helped find housing for about 2,000 migrant families since December. The group also collects donated furniture and kitchen supplies in a storage unit, then delivers them to families.

As of this week, there were more than 2,000 people in Denver-area temporary shelters, all of whom need to move to more permanent options, Suarez said.

“To be honest, the need is greater than the resources,” she said. “We are not going to be able to support all of those families.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.