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Immigration process lagging for Tampa Bay area residents

Non-citizens waiting months to a year for extension
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Posted at 5:49 PM, Jul 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 08:37:15-04

RIVERVIEW, Fla. — Cards and immigration paperwork have been a part of Jennifer Jones' life since the age of 14.

An earthquake in her home country of El Salvador forced her and her family to the states.

They moved to the United States under refugee status. Each year Jones and her family went through the process of renewals.

"Every year, I didn't know if I was going to be able to be here the following year," Jones said. "I was young. Followed my mom. My mom worked three jobs, you know. I was going to school. I would barely see her."

Each year she and her family were granted temporary status.

In 2017, Jones married her husband and began the legal process of becoming a citizen.

Her refuge status was changed to a conditional status which was one step closer to becoming a citizen. In 2020, she received a letter from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office that extended her status for an additional two years.

"It is a whole process of them making sure I'm not lying about my marriage. That I'm not lying just for the benefits just to stay here," Jones said.

On July 25, her status expired, which meant she could no longer work at her company. They placed her on leave in hopes she could get her status updated.

She said she has been trying for a year to get an extension.

"I tried to contact them. You research their phone number, and you get nowhere," Jones said. "When I go online to take a look at my case, it just says your case is within processing times."

Jones's story isn't a rarity.

Jose Fernandez with Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, Inc. has heard close to a dozen of stories like hers.

"The problem is that people call, and it is very hard to get through," Fernandez said.

Before the pandemic, Fernandez said the USCIS had an easy-to-use system. He said people could go online and renew, but now he said that has all changed.

In fact, the USCIS acknowledged the issues.

In March, they posted a statement on their website stating there were "resource constraints from the previous administration."

Two months later, in May, they noted the problem again and blamed COVID restrictions, fiscal issues, hiring freezes and "other factors" for the problem.

USCIS denied an interview to ABC Action News but provided this statement:

"USCIS adjudicators evaluate every petition and application humanely and efficiently on a case-by-case basis before issuing a determination, and the agency remains committed to upholding America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility with fairness, integrity, and respect for all we serve. USCIS will continue to promote policies and procedures that increase access to immigration services, restore faith and trust with the immigrant community, and reduce excessive burdens in the immigration system."

USCIS said it's in the works of remedying the backlog but doesn't see that happening until June of 2023. In the meantime, a representative said non-citizens could call their office, or they can chat with an online virtual assistant.

"At some point, it's like, okay, I need to move on from this. I have done everything right. I have answered to what you want me to answer to, I need you to answer so I can move on and live my life," Jones said.

For information from USCIS on how to renew a green card and more visit here.

*Editor's note: After ABC Action News reached out to USCIS about Jennifer Jones' case, she was alerted to check her account, which now shows her extension as being approved. She was told she would receive her notice by August 9.