Colorado needs immigrants despite systems to keep them out

Image courtesy of Aurea Bolaños Perea, Color Latina


Close to 40,000 new immigrants have arrived in the Denver metro area in the last 16 months. Many of them are fleeing Venezuela, where the once oil-dependent economy has collapsed since 2014 under the authoritarian leadership of President Nicolas Maduro. Since then, approximately 8 million Venezuelans have left the country—about a quarter of the entire population.

The vast majority, about 82%, of Venezuelans have fled to other Latin American and Caribbean countries, but in recent years, many of those economies have also deteriorated. For the roughly 10 percent who make it through the Darien Gap—a journey hundreds of miles north to the US Southern border, they face a whole new set of sometimes life-threatening obstacles.

KGNU’s Alexis Kenyon spoke with Zachary New, an immigration attorney at Joseph and Hall  in Aurora. New says that the US has tried to organize and make this border crossing more orderly. Still, because the efforts have been rolled out so haphazardly, more often than not, there is no good way to enter the US if you are a Latin American immigrant.

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    03_27_24immigrationattorney Alexis Kenyon


Zachary New: So, let’s start with you’ve reached the United States border. Now, you’re faced with this kind of quagmire.

You have to use this app, CBP1. There are 1,500 appointments for the entirety of the southern border, and you need to get one to lawfully present yourself to Customs and Border Protection and request asylum. So, you have about a 1 in 5 chance of getting an appointment daily.

And in the meantime, they’re stuck on the other side of the United States border, in Mexico, where they very well may not have status and could be deported back to Venezuela, where they fear actual death and, you know, a lot of horrible things that could happen to them.

Assuming you could get this appointment though, you go up to a Customs and Border Protection officer. You say, “I would like to request asylum.” You have to show that you have a well-founded fear, meaning that it’s objectively reasonable and subjectively true that you’re afraid of returning to Venezuela because you will be persecuted on behalf of your race, your religion, your nationality, your political opinions, or your membership in particular social groups.

If you don’t fit into one of those, you don’t qualify for asylum, and you’ll be turned around and essentially deported right there. If you’re let’s say, coming because you’re poor and you want a better life for yourself and your family. Well, that’s not an asylum claim, and you would be turned around right then and there.

Alexis Kenyon: So this Customs and Border Protection officer decides whether you qualify for asylum or?

Zachary New: They determine if you have a potential claim for asylum. At that point, though, the first real issue comes in: we have so many cases in our immigration court system that it could be years before you actually go in front of a judge.

In the meantime, you’re in the United States and don’t have work authorization for at least the first six months. So that’s where this first kind of hurdle comes in.

But assuming everything moves forward smoothly, you get your work authorization after six months of waiting around. At that point, you’re in the immigration court system.

You will go and present yourself in front of an immigration judge you get scheduled for what’s essentially a trial. There are no government-appointed private attorneys. So, it’s either they pay for a private attorney themselves, they find somebody willing to do it for free, or they are presenting their asylum claim in front of a judge against a government lawyer, presenting witnesses, putting testimony on, you know, evidence, all the things that you would normally expect in kind of a trial situation, except there’s no jury there.

Alexis Kenyon: So I want to talk about this waiting period when people are in Mexico trying to get an appointment because I think it’s really difficult to understand how dangerous and terrifying that period of time can be. A few weeks ago, I spoke with a woman who told me her story. I want to play that clip for you.

She spoke to me in Spanish through a translator, Elena Klaver.

Gleidys: When I got to Juarez, there was a group who beat up all the men and boys in our group to rob them. And because of my hair and my daughter’s hair, I had to cut my hair, they wanted to rape us. We were the only women that were there, the other guys, the guys that were beaten up, they defended us and while they were beating them up, they yelled run, crossover. And so I ran. I ran, and I crossed over at gate 36. And when I crossed over, an immigration agent put his weapon in my face like he was going to shoot me. I was paralyzed, and my daughter crossed the river. When I crossed over, my arms and my legs were cut entirely by the barbed wire, and my daughter was also. See, I have a lot of scars. God was with us at all times. There were so many times when we almost died.

Zachary New: Yeah, and that’s not an uncommon story by any means. Part of the reason we see folks cross the border without waiting for that CBP1 appointment is the risk that women and young girls face as they wait in camps. They’re unsafe as they wait at the southern border for the CBP1 app to function correctly and give them their appointment.

So, we hear stories of people being thrown off the border wall to distract CBP while others sneak into the U.S. And this is something that isn’t understood enough about why they don’t just wait in line. It’s ’cause the line is very dangerous. And so sometimes it’s better to cross the river, present yourself, and go through the legal process here in the United States, even if it isn’t exactly the way that U.S. citizens would love for them to do. ‘Cause the alternative is horrible things happening to them.

Alexis Kenyon: Yeah. So what happens for people like the women I interviewed who don’t come into the U.S. legally? What can you do?

Zachary New: I mean, there are a number of nonprofits right now doing an immense amount of pro bono work and workshops to try to help people in this situation. I will say there’s no cost to apply for asylum, so asylum application is free. Um, that initial work permit application after that first asylum application has been made is also free.

Alexis Kenyon: I want to jump in here to clarify because I think it’s a little murky. Coming into the U.S. illegally hurts a new immigrant’s chance of being granted asylum. However, new immigrants can and should still apply for asylum even if they came here illegally, as soon as they can, because the day you file, you begin to count down the days until you can then apply for a work permit. In the meantime, it may be years before your asylum application even gets in front of a judge. So just filing the application though starts that asylum clock where you have to wait six months until you can legally work.

Zachary New:  Yeah. So, I mean, so there’s really the big cost is that six months. You know, how do you survive for six months if you don’t know somebody in the United States to help you out. You don’t have family, not able to work, don’t have anywhere to live, you don’t have friends, and that’s where a lot of these NGOs and other entities really are coming into play and stepping up.

The city of Denver is also doing a very good job of that. They received an anonymous donation to create programs such as these asylum workshops and temporary protected status workshops to help people apply for various forms of relief.

Alexis Kenyon: For listeners who are interested, we have links BELOW to many of these workshops on our website. There’s also information about a temporary protected status visa, which can be an alternative to someone who doesn’t qualify for asylum. And there are a lot of other resources from Denver specifically and nonprofits.

But at the end of the day, Zach, I mean, many new immigrants find themselves without any real legal path forward. Can you tell me about what happens to these people?

Zachary New: Yeah. So, I mean, let’s start with the fact that we have 11 million people in the United States who are undocumented entirely. They don’t have any status whatsoever. So it’s not like this is an uncommon situation where they’re frankly just stuck in the United States with no status. Um, Denver, strangely, is a hotbed of human trafficking because we’re at the crossroads of I-25 and I-70. So, there are a lot of horrible things that happen to people who are living in these shadow economies who don’t have the full protections of the laws. We very often hear stories of individuals who are just horribly abused by employers.

Um, a very, very common one would be wage theft. I won’t pay you the amount that I am required to pay you or that I promised to pay you. And what are you to do about it, essentially?

It’s very common in the agricultural industry. So, um, somebody sponsoring an agricultural worker does have to provide housing, but I’ve seen situations where somebody has been given a trailer where they have to share the dog food with the dog. They have too little drinking water to sustain themselves for their working period. There are really just truly horrendous stories out there of people who are, I mean, not treated like humans.

Zachary New: I mean, we have programs available to help victims of crimes and labor-based abuses, to assist individuals in coming forward in these situations, but not everybody knows about these things. And so, people are afraid of this person’s going to report me to ICE, and because of that, I have to do whatever they say, whether that’s living in a trailer and eating dog food or worse.

There are truly some horrible stories out there. I think it’s the exception rather than the rule, but it is um. You know, a major issue. It’s something that people in Denver should be aware of. I mean, you can see it in rest stops and truck stops. They have little signs, uh,

Alexis Kenyon: What do you mean?

Zachary New: If you ever go to a rest stop. In the bathrooms, they will have numbers that you can call if you’re a victim of human trafficking. That just kind of does happen. Certainly, not everybody who is a newly arrived migrant is a subject of human trafficking. But, there are, I think, a lot of people who have gone through experiences that would terrify the senses of people who are currently in the United States. You know, that is unimaginable that they’ve gone through as they, you know, walk through the entirety of Central America and sometimes even into the United States, going through, you know, unimaginable experiences.

Alexis Kenyon: Hmm. I mean, a lot of the reasons why the immigration system in the US is so difficult to successfully work through is, I think, a lot because we have these narratives about immigration that are really negative. I mean, like the popular narratives that we hear over and over again, new immigrants take jobs away from people, or when we get new immigrants, crime goes up. Immigration, you know, drains our already strained social resources. I mean, what are your thoughts when you hear these arguments is there any truth to these stories that we hear over and over about immigration?

Zachary New: I always like to start these kinds of conversations with facts. I mean, the stats are, are unbelievably clear. Immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans. Immigrants are job creators and not job takers. 1 in 10 Coloradans is an immigrant. 1 In 4 Coloradans lives with an immigrant. An immigrant owns 1 in 6 businesses in the Denver metro area. And if we look at just recent stats and the concern that folks are taking jobs away, we will see that we have historically low unemployment rates in the United States and in Colorado. I mean, in Colorado, we have about 3 percent unemployment. So, these workers are needed who come to the United States, who come to Denver, and then they cannot work. They don’t have anywhere to live. And it’s kind of a what are you going to do type of thing. That’s where we see these camps of people on the streets in the middle of winter, which is, it’s horrendous.

Um, I guess to the arguments that we should be locking down the border and closing down the border, which is the result of having some sort of open border. I think that the very easy way to think about this is that, so I mean, even in North Korea, people cross the demilitarized zone to South Korea. People cross the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Wall, there’s no real way that we could lock down our border such that people are not going to be able to cross. What’s going to happen instead is that we’re going to open up new paths for smugglers or cartels to open up holes in the border in some way.

So yeah, the bottom line here is that there is no. There’s no realistic way to shut down the border. There’s no realistic way to I mean, we’re not going to have watchtowers every 50 feet across the entirety of our southern border. That’s just not feasible. And even if it were, people would still cross because that’s just human nature to get away from horrible difficult situations with your family in danger and come to safety.

Alexis Kenyon: I think this narrative about tightening borders, though, is, you know, kind of this belief that you know, the U.S. only has so many resources to go around. And they’re kind of, you know, doing the math, counting new people as people who use resources. And so that would result in less for everyone else. I mean, how do you see it?

Zachary New: Yeah, it’s not a zero-sum game in the end. One plus one doesn’t have to equal two. I mean, one plus one can equal three.

You have to think about who the people are who are coming to the United States, who are walking halfway across the continent. These are people who are go-getters, willing to take risks. I mean, I am not somebody who has traveled halfway across the world to try to better myself and my family. I think it’s much better to humanize the people who are coming here, what they’re giving up, and what they’re risking.

And if we look at where the origins of asylum law came from, it was the Holocaust. We had a lot of people in the 1940s who were coming by boat to the United States but couldn’t land. They weren’t able to actually get any immigration status or any status in the United States, and so they were turned around and sent right back to Nazi Germany. And I mean, they were subject to the Holocaust.

So after that happened, the international community came together and said, we can’t have this happen again. And they created various refugee protocols. The United States signed on to this. And there’s your origin for asylum law. And we don’t want to turn people back to conditions where their lives are in danger.


Resources for Venezuelan Immigrants in Denver

Asylum Application:

  • Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal: Essential for individuals seeking asylum in the U.S. due to persecution in their home country. Download and submit this form to USCIS.Download Form I-589

Temporary Protected Status (TPS):

  • Form I-821, Application for Temporary Protected Status: Venezuelans may be eligible for TPS due to unsafe conditions in their country. This form is the first step in applying for TPS.Download Form I-821
  • Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization: If you wish to work in the U.S., this form is required alongside your TPS application.Download Form I-765

Additional Resources:

  • USCIS Temporary Protected Status Page: For the latest information on TPS, including eligibility and documentation requirements.Visit USCIS TPS
  • USCIS Asylum Page: Detailed information on the asylum process and eligibility.Visit USCIS Asylum
  • Fee Waiver Request (Form I-912): For those who cannot afford the application fees, a fee waiver may be requested.Download Form I-912


  1. National Immigration Law Center
  2. Catholic Charities – Family Immigration Services
  3. Executive Office for Immigration Review
  4. American Immigration Lawyers Association
  5. Colorado Refugee Services Program
  6. Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains
  7. Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN)
  8. Schunk Law Firm
  9. Center for Health Progress
  10. Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition
  11. Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs – City and County of Denver


Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.

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