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Connecticut Lawyer Group To Help Haitians Apply For Temporary Protected Status In United States

MARK SPENCER

January 26, 2010

HARTFORD - As soon as word spread of the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti Jan. 12, Pierre D'Haiti started getting panicked phone calls.

D'Haiti, who runs the Haiti Relief Resource Office in Bridgeport, said the disaster has made the marginal existence of undocumented immigrants from Haiti living in the U.S. even more precarious.

In response, a group of Connecticut immigration lawyers announced Monday they will help Haitian immigrants apply for a new federal program that allows them to legally live and work in the country for at least 18 months.

The day after the earthquake, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano suspended deportations of Haitians, saying sending them back in the midst of the crisis would put their safety at risk. About 30,000 Haitians are facing deportation orders, immigration officials said.

President Barack Obama's administration followed that up by saying Haitians in the U.S. would also be eligible for Temporary Protected Status. The designation does not allow immigrants to stay permanently, but allows them to live and work in the United States until July 2011, when the program will be reviewed and possibly renewed.

"This is a humanitarian response to the earthquake," said Douglas R. Penn, chairman of the Connecticut chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The association and the state chapter of the American Lawyers Guild have formed Connecticut Lawyers for Haiti, which will hold four free legal clinics on Feb. 6 in Hartford, New Haven, Norwich and Stamford.

Although there are no accurate estimates of how many Haitians are in the state illegally, organizers expected 50 to 100 immigrants to attend each clinic. Nationally, officials estimate up to 200,000 Haitians are eligible.

D'Haiti said the gut reaction of many Haitians is to return home, but to do so would mean they could no longer earn money here to send back so their families can rebuild their lives.

"There is not a Haitian person who comes to our office who does not want to go back to help," he said.

D'Haiti is hoping Connecticut Lawyers for Haiti will sponsor a clinic in Bridgeport.

To qualify for Temporary Protected Status, immigrants must prove they are citizens of Haiti, have been in the country on or before Jan. 12 and have resided here continuously since then. Applicants will go through a criminal background check and will not qualify if they have been convicted of a felony or two misdemeanors.

Federal officials have said enforcement will be increased to prevent new migrants from Haiti entering the county illegally.

Temporary Protected Status is authorized when a country is facing a crisis due to war or natural disaster. Haiti joins El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan as countries that currently have the designation.

It is unclear how many undocumented immigrants will apply because it requires registering with the government and providing information that could be used later to deport them. But Penn said the status is often renewed for countries Honduras has had it since 1999 leaving the hope that broad immigration reform will have been adopted before it expires.

The Rev. Leonce Alexis of the French Speaking Baptist Church of New Haven, said most immigrants will not be afraid.

"That's not a problem," Alexis said. "We believe in the American government and the American system."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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