March 21, 2010
One very good thing the United States did to help Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake was to declare that Haitians living here when the quake hit could apply for temporary protected status, a special 18-month amnesty granted to illegal immigrants who cannot safely return home because of natural disasters or other reasons.
This was supposed to help Haitians help one another, swiftly and effectively. Undocumented immigrants live in the shadows, taking jobs at low wages, fearful of deportation. If they were legalized and unafraid, they could look for better work or further their education, and earn more to send to families in shattered Haiti, which acutely depends on remittances by its large diaspora.
The administration has been preparing to receive protected-status applications from as many as 100,000 of the 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians believed to be in the United States illegally as of Jan. 12. But only about 37,000 have applied, and only about 4,200 have been approved. The six-month application window closes in July. The pace must pick up drastically.
Haitian advocacy groups say the main reason for the poor response is money. Application fees total almost $500, a severe obstacle for working-class immigrants.
The head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Alejandro Mayorkas, says his agency can’t eliminate its fees, but it has the power to waive them for people who can prove they are poor. He has promised that his employees will treat applicants with a “generosity of spirit.” This would be a refreshing change for an agency notorious for bureaucrats expert in finding a way to say no.
The citizenship agency must redouble its efforts to make the application process simple and speedy, recognizing that many of these working poor lack documents showing their need. There is a burden, too, on immigrant advocates and Haitians themselves to make sure applicants are well-prepared for interviews — taking along, if necessary, simple affidavits attesting to financial need — so they can get working papers as quickly as possible.