Haitians who fled the earthquake-ravaged nation last year will be eligible to apply for special immigration status that allows them to live and work legally in the United States for a fixed amount of time, US immigration officials announced today.
The move extending so-called temporary protected status to those who fled the disaster marks a major shift for federal officials, who had resisted granting it to thousands of Haitians, in part to discourage a life-threatening mass migration by sea.
Until now, only Haitians who were already in the United States before the quake had been eligible to apply for the special status, leaving those who arrived afterward with few options. Many ended up overstaying their visas and becoming homeless.
The announcement comes days after Haiti inaugurated a new president.
Under their new status, the Haitians who came after the quake will enjoy the protected status until Jan. 22, 2013. The government also gave the 18-month extension to Haitians who came to the US before the quake. It had been set to expire in July.
"Providing a temporary refuge for Haitian nationals who are currently in the United States and whose personal safety would be endangered by returning to Haiti is part of this administration's continuing efforts to support Haiti's recovery,'' Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said in a statement.
The estimated 10,000 people who had fled after the quake on visitor visas, which they overstayed because they had no jobs or homes to return to, ended up crowded into relatives' homes or homeless and living in motels, as the Globe reported in January.
About 48,000 Haitians, who had been living in the United States before the quake, obtained TPS afterward.
Haitian immigrants and advocates cheered the news with tears and hugs today. Most had spent the past year and four months in limbo, descending into poverty while the reconstruction stalled in their homeland, leaving them nothing to return to.
Nonprofit groups such as Catholic Charities assisted them with English classes and other aid. Yesterday, an official with the charity said the announcement would transform their lives.
"We are all ecstatic," said Marjean A. Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston. "I ran down the hall I was so excited. We are so thrilled, so thankful. Today has made the lives of thousands of Haitians hundreds of times better."
In Brockton, where in January the Globe revealed that many Haitian families who fled the quake had ended up homeless and living in motels, Judeline Manigat hailed the news as a lifesaver for her husband and 6-year-old daughter, who arrived after the quake. With him unable to work, the couple ended up living in the Quality Inn in Brockton.
"Good! That's good," Manigat said. "I'm very happy."
Temporary protected status is a discretionary tool that the Homeland Security secretary uses in cases of emergencies to allow people from a nation torn by war or disaster to receive temporary safe haven in the United States until the US government deems that it is safe for them to return.
People must apply and pay fees in exchange for permission to live and work in the United States.
The earthquake ravaged Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, destroying most government buildings and killing an estimated 230,000. Hundreds of thousands of people are still homeless, and a cholera outbreak there has killed more than 4,800 people.
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