Melida Quintero and family

Venezuelans living in Lakeland are rejoicing over the Biden administration’s decision to grant them Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. The status would grant them protection from deportation until Sept. 9, 2022, and the ability to obtain a work permit.

The Pew Research Center estimates more than 300,000 Venezuelans living in the United States are eligible; local officials estimate around 800 Venezuelans live in the Lakeland area.

Venezuelans wishing to apply for temporary protected status have until Sept. 5 to do so.

Melida Quintero, 53, is just one of the many who plans to apply for TPS. Already a political asylum applicant, Quintero believes having the extra layer of protection can only help.

Ivalisse De la Fe

Lakeland-based immigration attorney Ivelisse De la Fe said she’s already seen about 15 families regarding the matter. She posted a video on Facebook explaining what the application process entails.

De la Fe estimates Quintero is one of at least 800 Venezuelans living in the Lakeland area, based on figures from the Venezuelan Association in Lakeland, which gathered 800 signatures for the Venezuelan National Plebiscite in 2017.

De la Fe called the Temporary Protected Status granted to Venezuelans in March great news.

“I believe it should have been granted a long time ago. Venezuela’s ongoing humanitarian, political and economic crisis has unrooted the lives of millions of Venezuelans who are now all over the world seeking safety and basic human rights,” she said. “I think it is great that the U.S. has offered this protection to Venezuelans. This way they can stay in the country and work legally to support their families.”

De la Fe added that in the past five years, it has grown increasingly difficult for Venezuelans to receive political asylum due to a backlog in cases. Before August 2020, asylum applicants had to wait 150 days after filing to apply for a work permit. That waiting period has now changed to 365 days, with a few exceptions, she said.

Quintero and her family have been in the United States since 2016. They’re still waiting for their interview to prove their asylum case, but they were able to obtain work permits in the meantime.

Melida Quintero, center; her son, Argenis Molina, right; and her husband, also named Argenis Molina

Quintero is used to navigating the legal system. Before moving to Lakeland, she was an attorney in Venezuela, where she worked for an organization backed by the government. When she declined to participate in political marches, she said government supporters threatened to kidnap her son. That’s when she, her husband and son decided to leave, fearing they would be killed. They chose the United States because they heard there were lots of opportunities for immigrants.

“I heard the United States protects people who are seeking political asylum,” Quintero said in Spanish.

The family came on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. Her son, Argenis Molina, enrolled in Mulberry High School days later. He graduated from high school when he was 16 years old and continued on to Polk State College, where he earned an Associate of Arts degree in December 2020.

“It’s been an easy process for me to study here. They offered me a lot of opportunities,” said Molina, adding he’s received numerous scholarships, including one from the Club Hispano de Lakeland.

Molina said he knew little English when he arrived but practiced fervently at home. He plans to continue his studies at the University of South Florida.

“My dream is to graduate (with a degree) in civil engineering and help my dad. They sacrificed everything they have, and they are working hard here to help me study, so I feel like I got to pay that to them, show them all of the work they are doing for me is not in vain,” he said.

The journey of adapting to American culture has been much more difficult for Melida Quintero. She doesn’t speak English and said it was hard finding a job. A Dominican offered her a job cleaning offices, quite the contrast to her lifelong career as an attorney.

“It is extremely difficult,” she said in Spanish.

She also found a job working at a daycare center and watches a physician’s children on the weekends.

“This country has taught me that you can’t solely depend on one job,” she said. “There are days I cry. Days I want to return and leave it all. Days I thank God for all of the opportunities.”

Quintero said she likes Lakeland because it is a smaller city and easy to navigate. She also likes the weather here.

Her husband has opened his own carpentry business, Molina Cabinets LLC,  a career he had left behind when he left Venezuela.

The family is hoping to receive permanent residency one day so they can travel to see their family again, including Quintero’s elderly parents, who all live in Venezuela. They haven’t seen them since they left.

Currently, temporary protected status does not provide a direct path to permanent residency, but the Biden Administration is pushing Congress to pass the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would allow TPS holders to receive a green card immediately if they meet requirements. They would be able to apply for citizenship within three years if they pass additional background checks, demonstrate they know English and are knowledgeable about U.S. civics. Quintero remains hopeful the act will pass.

She also wants to write a book about her experience seeking refuge in the United States, stating she believes the world should know what it has been like for so many Venezuelans being forced to leave their homeland for fear of being killed.

“In our country, there isn’t a good quality of life. There isn’t medicine. There isn’t food. There is nothing and a lot of insecurity,” she said, adding there are also issues with the water and electricity.

While the journey adapting to the United States hasn’t been easy, Quintero said she can finally sleep well at night.

“The most important thing is to have peace in wherever you live. You can eat, sleep , freely move about without fear of anything.”

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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