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Temporary amnesty brings joy, questions for local Haitians

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; 11:59 AM

When a friend called a 36-year-old Haitian woman from Takoma Park to tell her Haitians who have been living in the United States illegally will be allowed to stay and work for the next 18 months, the woman dropped the phone.

"I screamed. I got on my knees. And I cried 'Lord, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you,' " the woman, whose middle name is Stephanie, recalled. "Nine years I have been waiting for this."

But for Stephanie, who asked that only her middle name be used because she does not want acquaintances to know she has been an illegal immigrant all this time, the feeling was bittersweet.

The massive earthquake that prompted the Obama aministration to extend Haitians "temporary protected status" or TPS, flattened the house in Port-au-Prince where Stephanie grew up, leaving two of her brothers and their children homeless. Two other brothers are still unaccounted for.

"I said, 'Lord, All those people had to lose their lives so that you can deliver me from my hardship?' It's like joy and sorrow at the same time."

So it went in Haitian immigrant enclaves across the country this weekend as word of the TPS decision Friday spread among the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 foreigners expected to qualify.

Many are still trying to sort out the details.

"Will I need a lawyer?" wondered Vertus Louidor, 31, also of Takoma Park, who has mostly relied on close friends to house and feed her since she fled the poverty and unemployment of her rural hometown four years ago.

Dady Philogene, 28, a mother of two young American children who lives in Salisbury, was nervous about identifying herself to authorities--especially since there is no guarantee the status will be renewed after 18 months. "It's hard to put into words the feeling," she said. "You ask yourself what is going to happen afterwards."

But she was still keen to try. "Can I ask you a question, How long will the process take? When can I apply?" she asked a reporter.

The Department of Homeland Security's Web site does not yet state how soon the registration period will start. But once it is announced, Haitians will have 180 days to mail in their application forms.

They will be required to provide proof of Haitian nationality--a passport, birth certificate, or affidavits from relatives. They will also need to demonstrate that they were living in the United States before the earthquake -- by presenting pay stubs, receipts for rent or other documentation.

The fee for the legal status card is $50. Anyone over 14 will also have to pay $80 to process fingerprints and other biometrics. Work permits will cost another $340.

Immigrants whose income is near the poverty line may apply for a waiver. But Stephanie was unaware of that option.

"Between my husband and myself it's going to be almost $1,000," she said with a sigh. "I have no idea where we will get it."

But she had no doubt it would be worth the effort.

A former secretary who was in her second year of law school when she left Haiti, Stephanie said she decided to move to the United States after witnessing a series of murders.

"One morning, I was getting my shoes cleaned in the street when a robber shot a man for his wallet in broad daylight, the blood flying everywhere," she said. "Another time, I was robbed on my way home from work. The man put a gun on me in front of everybody . . . It was getting so dangerous. I could never go out at night. I felt afraid everywhere."

She flew in on a tourist visa, and stayed after it had expired.

At first, Stephanie said, she was able to find low-paying but steady jobs at fast food restaurants. But with ever more employers insisting on proof of legal status, she and her husband--a former translator for international aid agencies in Haiti--have increasingly relied on odd jobs: $180a week for babysitting friends' children; $200 for shoveling driveways after the last snowstorm.

They haven't missed the $818 rent on their apartment. But every month is a nail-biter.

An aspiring nurse, Stephanie said she's also been unable to afford to enroll in more than one nursing course per semester at Montgomery College because she must pay out-of-state tuition.

She is not sure what kind of jobs she and her husband will be able to find once they have work permits. "Maybe something at McDonalds. But whatever we can get we're going to work day and night," she said.

Her one consolation over the past several years was that her four brothers back in Haiti had jobs and didn't need her help. One worked for a phone company. Another for an electricity company. Another for a bank.

But the headquarters of all three companies were destroyed in the quake.

"Now suddenly everything is gone," she said. "I have all of them on my shoulders and I have nothing. So I'm going to work non-stop."

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