By Spencer S. Hsu and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 16, 2010; A09
The Obama administration will allow 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians living in the United States illegally to stay for 18 months because of Tuesday's earthquake but warned that Haitians who are newly caught trying to enter the country will be deported.
In granting eligible Haitian nationals temporary immigration status Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the move a gesture of compassion and an attempt to ensure that the flow of remittances to their devastated homeland continues.
"Providing a temporary refuge for Haitian nationals who are currently in the United States and whose personal safety would be endangered by returning to Haitiis part of this administration's continuing effort to support Haiti's recovery," Napolitano said.
She coupled her message with a caution, as Homeland Security officials said the change applies only to eligible illegal immigrants from Haiti in the country as of Tuesday.
"At this moment of tragedy in Haiti, it is tempting for people suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake to seek refuge elsewhere, but attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation," Napolitano said.
Haitians living the United States send back about $1.2 billion in remittances annually, accounting for about 20 percent of Haiti's economy. About 535,000 Haitian-born immigrants live in the United States, with the largest communities in New York and Florida. About 31,000 have outstanding deportation orders, and about 160 are in immigration detention.
The U.S. government announced this week that it was temporarily halting deportations of Haitians, including those in detention.
The U.S. government extends temporary protected status to nationals from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan under a law that is intended to provide relief to countries torn by war, natural disaster or political upheaval.
Immigrants must pay a fee to apply and are eligible only if they do not have a criminal record. The government can extend the program as conditions warrant.
Haitian American groups and immigration advocates have been asking for the ruling for years, citing four storms that wreaked havoc in the country in 2008 and a recurring food crisis.
"Victory at last," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which requested the change after Obama took office last year. While saying she was thrilled, Little added, "It's troubling indeed that it takes a disaster of this proportion to get our government to do the right thing for the Haitians."
The advocates were joined this week by Republican and Democratic lawmakers from Florida; Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and dozens of refugee agencies.
Some advocates for stricter immigration controls called the move justified, but others expressed reservations, noting that the status has been continually renewed for other groups long after the disaster that triggered it. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans, for example, have remained in the United States under the temporary immigration status granted to them in the wake of a 2001 earthquake.
Staff writer Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.