By KIRK SEMPLE
Published: January 19, 2011
A year after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the American government has received more than 53,000 applications from Haitians seeking temporary legal status in the United States, and it has approved the vast majority, a top immigration official said Wednesday.
The official, Alejandro Mayorkas, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, said his agency’s response to the disaster showed that it could handle a much larger immigrant legalization program like the proposal known as the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants.
Tuesday was the deadline for Haitians to apply for the designation, called temporary protected status. The program gives most Haitians who were in the United States on the day of the earthquake the right to stay and work legally for 18 months while Haiti tries to recover.
“I think our performance and our execution of the T.P.S. program serves as a model of our ability to execute immigration reform programs,” Mr. Mayorkas said in an interview. “How quickly, effectively and efficiently we responded to the disaster is a standard for us to adhere to.”
The special designation is scheduled to expire on July 22, but advocates for Haitian immigrants say they expect that the government will extend the status, as it has for immigrants from other countries crippled by war or natural disaster.
At least 46,000 Haitians have been granted the special designation. Immigration officials said that they were still processing applications that arrived before the deadline, and that they expected the total number of approvals to exceed 49,000. That is still lower than the number of people federal officials initially expected might be eligible for the temporary protection.
Immigration officials said they had purposely chosen high estimates of the number of Haitians who might have been eligible, to ensure that they had budgeted enough money and manpower to handle the application process. Within several weeks of the announcement, officials said, they revised down to 70,000 to 100,000 their initial estimate of 100,000 to 200,000, after consulting with academics, immigrant advocates and others familiar with the Haitian diaspora.
Even now, officials said, since there is no way to count the illegal immigrant population, they do not know how many potentially eligible Haitians decided not to file for the special status.
The federal government’s offer was accompanied by a robust outreach effort that included more than 200 public forums, and conference calls between immigration officials and advocacy groups working with Haitians, officials said. Mr. Mayorkas himself led meetings with community leaders and others in New York, Miami and Boston, where large Haitian populations have taken root, and he sent deputies to other locations to explain the program.
Officials at Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, also say that improvements to the agency’s paperwork processing, background screening and public information systems have made it more efficient at handling applications.
Mr. Mayorkas acknowledged that sweeping immigration legislation like the Dream Act would apply to a much larger population: by some estimates, more than 700,000 young illegal immigrants would be eligible under the act. But he said that the difference was “an issue of scale” and that his agency was prepared to handle the increase in applications that an immigration overhaul would spur.
Immigrant advocates and federal officials said that news of the special status seemed to penetrate into the furthest reaches of the diaspora, but some Haitians living in the United States illegally may have decided not to apply because they still feared deportation and did not want to alert the authorities to their whereabouts.
Those who did not apply may now be eligible for deportation. The Obama administration suspended deportations to Haiti immediately after the earthquake and even released many Haitians, including some with criminal convictions.
Last month, however, immigration officials announced that they would resume deportations of Haitians in mid-January. But they also said they intended to focus their deportation efforts only on those who had been convicted of crimes or who posed a threat to public safety.
Haitian leaders in the United States and some public officials have asked the administration to reverse course. On Wednesday, six New York City Council members sent a letter to Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, urging her to suspend deportations once again while Haiti wrestles with its halting reconstruction effort and with fresh political and social unrest.
“Removing Haitians at this time would not only put those removed at risk,” the letter said, “but also hamper efforts of Haitians to rebuild their country, homes and lives.”