MIAMI — With their homeland ravaged by an earthquake, more than 50,000 Haitians have applied to legally stay and work in the U.S. and immigration advocates are urging others not to miss their chance.
The deadline to apply for temporary protected status is July 20. Only Haitians who were already living in the U.S. illegally when the earthquake struck Jan. 12 are eligible.
Temporary protected status, or TPS, allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to stay and work in the U.S. for 18 months.
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As of June 4, 51,881 applications have been processed, more than half of them in Florida, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. About 11 percent have been rejected for being incomplete or lacking the proper fee.
Federal officials initially said they expected about 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians to apply for temporary protected status. The government now says that’s actually the number of applications they can handle. They expect about 70,000 applications by mid-July.
Immigration advocates say some Haitians who are eligible won’t apply because they don’t have $470 for application fees, or because they fear stepping forward will only lead to trouble and deportation to Haiti.
“We understand this community is going through incredible hardship,” CIS spokeswoman Ana Santiago said. “We’re urging people to please register, because this is something that will help you deal with the situation.”
The Haitian community center Sant La in Miami offers small loans to some applicants. Others have been trying to save up the money before the deadline, instead of asking immigration officials for a fee waiver.
Executive Director Gepsie Metellus said some Haitians regard the offer of temporary protected status warily, believing the documentation just makes it easier to deport them later. They don’t see it leading to better paying jobs that can support their families in the U.S. and in Haiti.
“All we can do is debunk the myths that are out there,” Metellus said. “We encourage people to apply and point out that the government knows where you are now, and they’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
Manouse Jean of Miami said temporary protected status will be a relief from years of frequent relocations to elude immigration authorities after her appeal for asylum was denied. She fled Haiti’s political instability in 1999.
“I used to be afraid to work, to go walking in the streets. To catch the bus, my heart would be beating so fast,” the 33-year-old said Thursday after dropping off documents for her TPS application at the Archdiocese of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services.
She joined hundreds of people who packed a Haitian neighborhood church in January for information about temporary protected status. She hopes TPS also will allow her to pursue training for licensed practical nurses so she can find work caring for earthquake survivors if she eventually is deported to Haiti.
“If I can be an LPN, and if immigration sends me back, I will have something to survive with,” Jean said. “With TPS, I am happy. I’m not scared anymore.”
Haitians who miss the July deadline will not be able to apply again if the U.S. renews temporary protected status for Haiti, as it has for more than a decade for Central American countries that had to rebuild after a 1998 hurricane.
“If they don’t get in this time, they’re going to be sorry because the doors to this TPS will be closed to them forever,” Metellus said.
Haiti’s government and Haitian advocates in the U.S. for years pleaded for TPS after hurricanes, massive floods, food riots and political turmoil in the Caribbean country. Their pleas were denied, until the catastrophic earthquake five months ago.
Since then, the U.S. also temporarily stopped deporting Haitians, even those in detention. About 31,000 Haitians have orders to leave, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Haitian migrants interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard continue to be returned to their homeland; nearly 600 since October.