Homeland Security recently reported that only a small fraction of Haitian immigrants potentially eligible for special immigration relief through Temporary Protected Status (TPS) have actually sought that benefit.
Immigrant advocates and humanitarian groups lauded the granting of TPS in the wake of the earthquake. It was a vindication of previous efforts following the devastating 2008 storm season, when activists had pushed for TPS, which enables legal employment, as a matter of justice for the burgeoning Haitian American community. Yet as of this week, only about 38,000 people have applied for TPS, compared to an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians living in the U.S. unauthorized.
Currently, according to a report posted on ImmigrationProf, roughly 10 percent of applications have been rejected, and about half of applications for fee waivers have been approved. The New York Times reported last month that some applications for fee waivers had been turned down “partly because applicants offered little proof beyond saying, ‘I don’t have the money.’” Now might be a good time to take their word for it, though.
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.
But beyond that, there are many barriers to registering for TPS that could account for the low response rate. The legal red tape and paperwork may be daunting. Many survivors could still be reeling from the trauma of losing or being separated from loved ones. Language barriers limit people’s access to attorneys’ services, and a past criminal record could disqualify an applicant. And there is a very real and well-founded fear of what might happen if you make yourself or your family known to federal authorities—even if only to be recognized for the immigration relief you’re entitled to. If you can manage to avoid deportation and work off the books indefinitely, would the 18 months of official relief under TPS really be worth the risk of exposure to a system better known in immigrant communities for its incompetence and corruption than its humanitarian credentials? The arbitrary detention of a group of Haitian quake survivors (TPS is only available to those here prior to the quake), reported this week by Nina Bernstein, is another telling reminder of how ill-equipped the government is to contemplate the nuances of a humanitarian crisis.
But the benefits of TPS could go a long way toward helping the Haitians here lay the groundwork for recovery at home. The contributions of Haitian migrants is especially crucial now that rebuilding missions appear to be moving into full force, while huge questions remain about what role, if any, the diaspora will be allowed to play in the international effort. In creating a new social and economic infrastructure for Haiti, a grassroots force that could hold both donor countries and the Haitian government accountable may come from the vast network of émigrés, including professionals with expertise they could lend to the rebuilding, as well as workers whose remittances helped helped buoy the country’s flailing economy prior to the quake and play an even more significant role now. Some propose relaxing draconian visa restrictions to facilitate the reunification of families in the U.S.
While administration’s granting of TPS was a positive and necessary move, the fact that few seem willing to take advantage of it so far only underscores the desperate need for comprehensive immigration reform, so that people do not have to struggle with the uncertainty of temporary aid measures. Stuck in limbo between stopgap relief and hope for transformation, Haitians continue their weary wait for justice.
Image: “Haitian-Americans attend church services at the Notre Dame D’Haiti Roman Catholic Church in the “Little Haiti” section of Miami.” (Alan Diaz / AP)