Friday, June 3, 2011

Serving Haiti’s evacuees: knocking down barriers to safety as Haiti struggles to rebuild

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Guest post by Debi Sanders, staff attorney for Catholic Charities’ Immigration Legal Services Program.

Two weeks ago, our Immigration Legal Services staff celebrated the announcement by the Department of Homeland Security to extend “Temporary Protected Status” (TPS) for another 18 months to more than 40,000 Haitian evacuees living in the U.S.  For our ILS staff, this was a breakthrough moment following months of advocacy by more than 50 agencies seeking to help evacuees following the devastating 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti. 

What is Temporary Protected Status (TPS)? TPS is exactly what it sounds like. The U.S. government temporarily recognizes and welcomes evacuees from a country that has suffered a severe natural disaster or political upheaval. It is not granted lightly – the Secretary of State, the Attorney General and the Department of Homeland Security all must agree.

It allows evacuees the freedom to work, earn a living and provide for their families when returning to their home nation is not safe or possible. Last week’s announcement by the U.S. government also included a re-designation that extended to people who were evacuated from Haiti in the following weeks. 

For Haitian evacuees, the extension and re-designation are key steps. Yet even after everything the United States government has done to help Haiti over the past year, there remain many problems to address, and that’s where we have stepped in along with a network of advocates for immigrants and evacuees.

The barriers we are trying to knock over are very practical. For example, evacuees covered by TPS have to pay up to $515 in application fees and the cost of a work permit before they can move on to get a job. Someone applying for a work permit in the first place isn’t likely to have this kind of money just lying around.  Many evacuees living in the U.S. are sending home as much of their wages as they can to support family at risk in Haiti.

Catholic Charities partnered with more than 50 organizations around the country, including the law firm Hunton & Williams, to bring the plea for evacuees directly to Alejandro Mayorkas, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. These are ongoing items that our ILS team will be working on in the months ahead.

1.  Help the evacuees as they make a life in the United States

Many evacuees had no way of helping themselves—in fact, many of them were thinking only of leaving Haiti to reach safety, not about legal applications or paperwork.  We trust Homeland Security will continue to be generous in granting work authorization.

2.  Reunite Haitian families

The list of children, women, and men waiting to be reunited with their families in the United States is so long that, from sign-up to admission, those seeking reunification may have to wait up to 12 years. We are asking Homeland Security to unite these families now.

3.  Stop deportations for people with minor convictions

We note that not all of these criminals are dangerous. In fact, one Haitian evacuee from Florida was charged with “felony littering.”

We applaud the hard work of all our ILS staff attorneys, our partner organizations and our pro bono neighbors at Hunton & Williams for making such a tremendous difference in thousands of lives as they recover from one of the most devastating natural disasters of the decade.

Want to learn more about how ILS supports immigrations and evacuees? Contact me at