By. Erica Pearson, New York Daily News
In the days and weeks after the 2010 quake, thousands of Haitians fled their homeland for New York – and now face an uncertain future because their tourist visas have run out.
They’ve found homes and work, enrolled in school and made new friends – only to be told they must return to a country gripped by disease and despair.
Stephanie Macon, 16, and her three siblings are living with their grandfather in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and cannot imagine returning to Port-au-Prince, where their home was leveled.
“I feel safe,” said Stephanie, a 10th-grader at John Dewey High School. “At first, it was crazy. Every time I was crying because I didn’t know where to go. But now I love it.”
She and her sisters applied for a visa extension and were turned down. A letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said they should not be in school and are “required to depart the United States.”
Haitian community groups say the plight of the Macons is not unique. Many survivors who rushed to relatives here will end up living in the shadows or forced to return to the disaster zone.
“They’re trapped,” said Yves Vilus, executive director of the Erasmus Neighborhood Federation. “This is going to be a huge problem.”
Ninaj Raoul of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees said her group’s English classes are packed with quake victims whose legal status has expired.
“Too many people are being left out in the cold,” Raoul said. “Obviously, these folks are not going to opt to go home to tents in Haiti right now.”
Haitians who were here before the quake have until Tuesday to apply for a special legal status allowing them to work, but those who came after don’t qualify.
“These are the folks that are direct victims,” Raoul said. “They’re not eligible for immigration relief, they’re not eligible for work authorization, so they can’t support themselves.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services said those here on expired tourist visas can return home and reapply or apply to stay for humanitarian reasons. The latter is given out on a case-by-case basis, and it’s unclear whether the Macons would qualify.
Everyone in the family survived the quake, but the family’s house was flattened.
“I didn’t have any school to go to, and it was scary – outside, but inside, too, because it could shake again,” said middle sister Christina, 12.
Their mother sent all of the kids – who already had tourist visas – to Brooklyn in March.
Their grandfather, livery driver Andre St. Louis, 64, welcomed Stephanie; Christina; Wilkinson, 18, and Woodlyne, 10, into his two-bedroom apartment.
“I thought they all were dead,” St. Louis said. “And then I knew the only thing to do was bring them here. They love it here because they love the schools they’re going to.”
Teachers at John Dewey High School say Wilkinson, a senior who is fluent in English, should go to college here. The other children also are thriving.
“I’m scared and worried,” Stephanie said of the prospect she might have to return to Haiti.
“I would be scared because I don’t know if the earthquake could happen again. I would be worried because of my school – it’s very different here. I would forget everything. I would not be able to study the same.”
Haitians face a host of immediate immigration issues:
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they will begin deportations to Haiti, suspended immediately after the quake, by month’s end – and advocates are outraged.
“The idea that the U.S. would send Haitian nationals back to Haiti in the middle of a cholera epidemic and in the midst of postelection violence is unbelievable,” said Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Homeland Security Department officials say they must lift the moratorium on deportations because they can’t keep people in detention indefinitely and don’t want to release them.
They plan to send back 700 people this year – only convicted criminals at this point.
- The deadline to apply for Temporary Protected Status, which allows Haitians who were in the U.S. before the quake to work, is Tuesday.
Just over 7,000 people in New York have been approved. The deadline was extended after fewer Haitians than expected applied – in part because of fears they could be deported, advocates say.
- Immigration quotas mean tens of thousands in Haiti who already have qualified to come here face a lengthy wait that can take years.
The delay is routine, but the U.S. makes an exception for Cubans. And community groups say Haitians deserve a similar exception.
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