Eligible Haitians will have more time to apply for temporary protected status

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; B01

Jeff Jn Charles had, for months, been nervous about leaving the house. He feared that he'd be sent back to Haiti if someone discovered he had no identification. But one day this month, he sat in the Eglise Baptiste Du Calvaire, a Haitian church in Adelphi, proudly holding up his new Maryland identification card.

"I have an ID," he said, smiling. "Now, I can say, 'I'm Jeff.' "

Jn Charles, 25, is one of 35,005 Haitians who have received temporary protected status (TPS) since the Jan. 12 earthquake in their homeland. The program allows those who can prove they have lived continuously in the United States since that date to remain in the country legally for 18 months, regardless of their status when they applied.

On Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to announce that it will extend the July 20 registration deadline to Jan. 18. About 70,000 to 100,000 Haitians are eligible; as of Friday, 55,786 had applied. Most live in Florida and New York. As of June, 1,407 people in the Washington area had applied.

"The registration pace has been slower than expected," said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of the immigration service.

Barriers include the difficulty of obtaining necessary documents from Haiti, the $470 application fee and a fear that signing up could lead to deportation. Those applying for TPS tend to be in the United States illegally or on visas that are set to expire.

The program is not a path to citizenship or permanent residency, but it offers people like Jn Charles a way to work and live in the country without fear of deportation.

In Port-au-Prince, Jn Charles was a business student. He arrived in the United States last year on a medical visa to seek treatment for an eye injury. The visa expired in November, but he stayed in his uncle's Silver Spring home to continue treatment. He was, Jn Charles said, afraid all the time.

"Living without papers is very difficult, very stressful," he said. "I couldn't go out, I couldn't even drive, I couldn't even have an ID, I couldn't safely walk on the street. If there's a police officer who might ask me for my papers, you were afraid. And you don't want to confront the situation." Jn Charles didn't dare look for work.

On Jan. 12, the life he had left behind in Haiti collapsed in crushed concrete and steel. Like many Haitians in the United States, he waited anxiously for news. When the dust cleared he learned that his school, his church, and many of his friends and family members had disappeared under the rubble.

After the earthquake, Haitians who were already in the United States became eligible for TPS, making Haiti the first country to become eligible since Sudan in 2004.

USCIS and community organizations held information sessions, helped people apply for fee waivers and warned them about scammers offering "help" filling out the forms. Mayorkas said that 92 percent of fee-waiver applications are being granted and that TPS "should be a source of comfort rather than a source of fear."

Still, at the Caribbean Help Center in Silver Spring, only about half of eligible Haitians have applied, the Rev. Evans Faustin said. Besides balking at the fees, he said, "they're afraid it's going to end. They're afraid it's a way for [immigration authorities] to get their name and information."

Faustin said he has tried to convince them otherwise: "It's a really good thing; I firmly believe so. That's why I encourage all the people, 'You never know, so go ahead, take the chance.' I have seen so many lives change, especially for young people."

Faustin said one woman had been in the United States illegally for 10 or 15 years and was in deportation proceedings when she applied and got a work permit.

"Now she's working," he said. "She has a Social Security number, which she wanted for so long."

The status could extend for years if previous disasters are any indication. Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Hondurans, who received TPS after natural disasters dating as far back as 1999, continue to have theirs extended, and an 18-month extension for Salvadorans was announced Friday.

Each extension requires a new application from TPS holders.

The Rev. Jean St. Ulme, pastor at Eglise Baptiste Du Calvaire and Jn Charles's uncle, said Haiti remains in such disarray that it is unlikely to be able to accept repatriation of its nationals anytime soon.

"Definitely it should be extended, because Haiti will not be good even 10 years from now," he said. "So there's no way they can give it now and then next year say, 'You have to go back to your country.' "

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