Immigration chief pushes eligible Haitians to apply for legal status

The nation’s top immigration official appealed for help last week as his agency struggles to convince undocumented Haitian nationals living in the U.S. before last January’s earthquake to apply for temporary legal status. Ali Mayorkas, director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), addressed a gathering of immigration lawyers and activists for more than a hour-and-a-half at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in downtown Boston last Friday. The majority of the back-and-forth discussion that followed his brief remarks focused on the Obama administration’s response to the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti.
In the days after the earthquake, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — which includes the USCIS— agreed to offer Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to any Haitian national living in the U.S. as of January 12. The designation allows eligible Haitians to legally live and work in the U.S. for up to 18 months — if they arrived in the U.S. prior to the earthquake. So far, roughly 45,000 Haitian nationals have applied for TPS, a figure that some say is disappointingly low.
Proponents of TPS status say it allows vulnerable Haitians to “come out of the shadows” of illegal status and establish access to much-needed services and, potentially, a path to eventual permanent residency. Skeptics worry that seeking official status here will ultimately lead to deportation after the grace period expires, even though TPS designations have frequently been repeatedly extended in the wake of similar natural disasters in Latin America.
Mayorkas, an American of Cuban descent, acknowledged Friday that a “trust” issue may be dulling the anticipated response rate among Haitians. He asked the immigration activists and attorneys present “to stand together and encourage the community” to apply for TPS recognition.
“If I stand before a group of undocumented Haitian nationals, they might believe me and they might not,” Mayorkas said. “They will trust you. If someone feels it’s better not to access [TPS], that is a personal decision with which I disagree.”
“We need the community to speak up,” he said. “The situation now for Haitian nationals who are here without authority is unpredictable. There is not a lawful right to work.”
Marjean Perhot, director of Refugee and Immigration Services for Catholic Charities, said that her agency has been surprised that more local Haitians have not applied for TPS, despite an aggressive outreach effort organized through her office. Although some 787 Haitians have attended ten TPS workshops — most staged at the Haitian Multi-Service Center in Dorchester — Perhot says that only 178 applications have been prepared.
“We’ve been surprised that the numbers are as low as they are,” Perhot said. “We believe there are a significant number who can still apply and may be waiting to see if it’s a legitimate thing. One thing that’s very clear is that the Haitian community is in desperate need of reputable legal advice.”
Perhot says that many people who have come to Catholic Charities free clinics have already been victimized by “notarios” — people posing as attorneys who charge exorbitant fees for legal services that are available for free through legitimate organizations like Catholic Charities.
Though pressed repeatedly by advocates, Mayorkas was careful in his remarks to avoid an ironclad commitment that Haitians granted TPS now could expect any extension of protected status after the 18 month window closes next year. Such a renewal decision, he said, would be made based on existing conditions in the country next year.
Mayorkas acknowledged Friday that his agency may have “erred” by making public their initial estimates of how many Haitian nationals might come forward to seek TPS. In January, his office estimated that as many as 200,000 people would apply. Since then, Mayorkas says that other experts in the immigration field have calculated that between 70,000-100,000 applicants in a more realistic number. By that count, Mayorkas said, “I’m not sure that we’re off-pace.” The deadline for those seeking to get TPS certification is Jan. 22 and Mayorkas said Friday that his office has not yet considered offering more time for filings.
“I don’t think access is necessarily an issue,” he said.
Catholic Charities is planning another TPS workshop at its Columbia Road headquarters of the Haitian Multi Service Center for May 1. Perhot says that they would not be putting so much effort into the outreach effort if she did not believe this offered Haitians “their one chance” for normalizing their status within the US.
“I have usually been very skeptical, but in this instance I think the US government is trying to do the right thing for Haitians. We wouldn’t be out there if we didn’t have a very strong sense that TPS would be renewed,” she said.