'So stressful:' Ahead of Fourth of July, legal immigrants left in limbo as immigration system overloads

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has already canceled schools, sports and concerts, and on this July 4th another celebrated event is indefinitely postponed: naturalization ceremonies.

"The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are long reaching and pervasive, leaving few unscathed in its wake," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow said. "USCIS is still experiencing those very effects, which began with an alarming drop in applications at the end of March."

Applications dropped, of course, because the spread of the new coronavirus forced USCIS to close its field offices and halt in-person services, which immigrants rely on for work permit authorizations, green cards and other affirmative benefits.

Despite reopening many offices on June 4, the exponential backlog of cases -- and a $1.2 billion loss -- are leading federal officials to furlough 13,000 USCIS staffers, leaving millions of immigrants across the country in limbo.

"It's so stressful," Gabriel Lima, a Brazilian immigrant living in Raleigh, told ABC11. "I can't tell my wife or my kids that everything is going to be fine because I don't know."

Lima came to the U.S. for college at Brigham Young University in Utah where he would meet his future wife; they moved to the Triangle for his new job at RTP and have a daughter.

"I'm not supposed to be in this kind of predicament because I followed all the rules, submitted all documentations within the deadlines and I'm still here waiting for two weeks without knowing what's going to happen," he said. "What gives me hope is still the promise of a good future -- the American Dream."

According to the American Immigration Council, legal immigrants like Lima make up about 8 percent of North Carolina's population, and they work in everything from agriculture to technology.

The Tar Heel State is also among the top states for resettled refugees, and advocates are warning that the pandemic is further exacerbating the strain on the system where there are more than 1 million cases pending, including nearly 40,000 in North Carolina.

"Yes, there are valid reasons like the pandemic but there's also intentional delays," Nam Douglass, an immigration attorney in Raleigh, told ABC11. "They may do a master calendar hearing before a judge who says your actual hearing and evidence is three years from now or four years from now. That's creating a strain on families because it's difficult to plan for the future and it's straining our court system to handle these cases."

Another challenge, Douglass explained, is the risk of expediting cases and trying to rush them through the system.

"By rushing or not allowing a continuance or allowing someone to have an attorney is basically denying those persons due process to tell their story to a judge who is interested in their case and their life (and who) can make a fair decision based on the facts."

For Lima, just this week he was given an emergency extension for his work permit, but it is only good for one year. He said he is relieved at the moment but knows the anxiety of an unknown future remains.

"You come here, you make a life, and you live. That's what gives you hope."
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