By ANNE BARNARD, New York Times
March 15, 2010
Within days of the devastating earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12, the United States government declared that Haitians living illegally in the United States were eligible for temporary protected status, a special immigration designation that temporarily allows them to work here legally.
While advocates and government officials alike said that this was one of the most effective ways to get help to needy quake victims, the number of applicants has fallen short of expectations.
Two months after the earthquake, and a third of the way to the July deadline to file for the special status, just 34,427 of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 undocumented Haitians who were in the United States before Jan. 12 have applied, said the Department of Homeland Security. The protected status allows 18 months of legally working.
Charitable groups blame the lag on the application fees, which total about $500. The average monthly amount that Haitians abroad send to relatives in Haiti — a pillar of the country’s economy — is just $150, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. On Monday, a broad coalition of charities called on the government to make it easier for applicants to have the fee waived.
Haitians who are granted the special immigration designation could add as much as $1 billion to the Haitian economy over the next three years, Hunton & Williams, a law firm for Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services, wrote in a letter backed by the Episcopal bishop of Haiti and 49 American charity groups. The letter was sent to Congress and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program.
Applicants for the special status are usually working class and, because they are working illegally, may not be receiving fair wages, said Debi Sanders, a government liaison for Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services. And the cost is not the only obstacle: To get the fee waived, applicants must supply extensive financial information, a challenge for workers who have “gone out of their way not to have anything on paper,” she said.
Ms. Sanders said the charities were optimistic that the government would adopt their suggestion to make the fee waiver process simpler, because department officials have told advocates privately that they want to see more applications. Just 1,657 people have applied for waivers so far, said Luz Figuereo Irazabal, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services. Only 696 were granted, partly because applicants offered little proof beyond saying, “I don’t have the money.” She said about 10 percent of the 34, 427 applications had been rejected because of simple mistakes like forgetting to sign a form. Her agency’s Web site, uscis.gov, lists common filing mistakes.
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