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Groups seek temporary legal status for Haitians illegally in U.S.

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010; 3:15 PM

In response to Haiti's devastating earthquake, dozens of immigrant advocacy groups and several members of Congress are renewing a long-standing call for the Obama administration to grant temporary legal status and work permits to as many as 125,000 Haitians in the United States illegally.

By law the secretary of homeland security, in consultation with the secretary of state, can offer "temporary protected status," or TPS, to illegal immigrants of a particular nationality if calamities such as natural disaster or war make it too burdensome for their home countries to receive them.

Immigrants must pay a fee to apply for TPS and are eligible only if they were already in the United States at the time the benefit was offered and if they do not have a criminal record. The status is usually granted for up to 18 months, but the government can, and often does, renew it repeatedly as conditions warrant.

Although immigration authorities have halted all deportation flights to Haiti for the time being, there was no word yet on whether TPS would be granted.

"TPS is in the range of considerations we consider in a disaster, but our focus remains on saving lives," Matthew Chandler, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said Thursday.

Supporters of Haitian immigrants have been lobbying for the move since the fall of 2008, after two hurricanes and two tropical storms ravaged Haiti over a four-week period.

Within hours of Tuesday's quake, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Mario Diaz-Balart -- all Republicans from Florida -- sent a letter to President Obama reiterating their earlier pleas for TPS for Haitians. "The combined destruction of today's catastrophic earthquake and the previous storms clearly makes forced repatriation of Haitians hazardous to their safety at this time," they wrote. "We strongly believe that it is for such a situation that Congress enacted TPS."

They are among several leaders holding separate news conferences in Miami on Thursday to draw further attention to the issue. Others include the head of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, who will be accompanied by Edwidge Danticat, a celebrated Haitian author and winner of a MacArthur Fellow "genius" grant. Twenty-six refugee agencies also sent a joint letter Thursday urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to consider TPS for Haitians, and the National Council of La Raza released a statement to the same effect.

The U.S. government currently extends TPS to nationals from five countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan. However, despite requests by successive Haitian governments, Haitian immigrants have been denied the benefit numerous times during their nation's tumultuous history.

Most recently, after the storms of 2008, President George W. Bush's administration suspended deportations for a few months before formally refusing to grant Haitians TPS and resuming repatriation flights.

Shortly after Obama took office, his administration informally stopped deporting non-criminal Haitians: According to government statistics, in 2009 only 221 non-criminal Haitians were deported, compared with 1,226 in 2008. (By contrast, the number of Haitians with criminal records who were deported remained roughly the same at 466 in 2009 compared with 428 in 2008.)

Immigrant activists contend that although the informal reprieve from deportation offers some relief to illegal immigrants from Haiti, without the right to work that TPS provides, they are still extremely limited. Allowing such immigrants full access to American jobs could also vastly increase the amount that Haitians are able to send relatives back home at a time when Haiti is in desperate need of cash, said Steve Forester, a Miami-based advocate with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

"When somebody works here they can support up to 10 times that number back in Haiti. So we're talking about supporting hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti at no cost to U.S. taxpayers," Forester said.

As it is, Haitians living the United States send back about $1.2 billion annually -- accounting for 20 percent of Haiti's GDP, according to Manuel Orozco, an expert with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. It is unclear how much higher the figure would be if those here illegally were granted TPS. They number between 75,000 to 125,000, accounting for as many as one in four Haitian immigrants, according to Jeffrey S. Passel, a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center.

Most have stayed under the official radar, but about 31,000 have outstanding orders of removal. About 160 are in detention, said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The rest include many asylum applicants who were turned down and ordered removed, but not necessarily given a date to report for deportation, according to Nantel.

Several advocates for stricter immigration controls expressed reservations about extending TPS to Haitians, noting that the status has been continually renewed for other groups long after the disaster that triggered it. For instance, tens of thousands of Salvadorans have been able to remain under the TPS granted to them in the wake of a 2001 earthquake, even as other Salvadorans who illegally entered the United States in the years since are routinely deported.

"TPS was invented for the kind of situation in Haiti, so it's totally justified in this case. But this is also an opportunity to re-assess the way TPS is done," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "The law should be much more clear that this isn't a way to get your foot in the door and get a green card. Temporary has to mean temporary."

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