Quake Prompts Respite For Haitians Illegally In U.S.

Bowing to pressure from Congress, the Obama administration said Friday that tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants who are in the United States illegally will be allowed to stay for the next year and a half. That means that none will be deported to their devastated homeland for now. But any Haitians who attempt to flee to the U.S. will be sent back.

Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters in a conference call that all Haitians in the U.S. who were facing deportation before Tuesday's earthquake struck Haiti are being given legal status for the time being. Just like nationals from other nations struck by catastrophe have in the past, these Haitians will be allowed to register for what's known as temporary protected status, or TPS. Napolitano called it a sort of "time out" for a large number of Haitians who might otherwise be deported:

"I've seen estimates of between 100,000 to 200,000 Haitian nationals currently in the country who do not have, or who are not legally in the United States," Napolitano said. "TPS gives them sort of an intermediate immigration status; it allows them only for a period of 18 months — while Haiti gets back on its feet — to remain in the United States and authorizes them to work during that period."

Napolitano noted that letting these Haitians work legally will allow them to send remittances to needy relatives in Haiti. The Bush administration had refused to grant TPS to Haitians in the U.S. even after floods devastated Haiti six years ago and four hurricanes hit that nation in 2008.

Mark Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates more restrictions on immigration. He concedes the earthquake in Haiti is precisely what TPS was designed to deal with: "But the question is, is it going to be temporary? Because all previous grants of TPS in actual fact ended up being permanent," Krikorian said. "Very few people, if any, have ever been deported after a grant of TPS."

Krikorian worries that granting protected status to Haitians in the U.S. will trigger a refugee exodus from Haiti. But Napolitano stated emphatically that those Haitians who attempt to sneak into the U.S. will be sent home:

"At this moment of tragedy in Haiti it is tempting for people suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake to seek refuge elsewhere," she said. "But attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation."

Napolitano said there have been no signs yet of Haitians fleeing to the U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, who was among a bipartisan group that pushed hard for temporary protected status for Haitians, said sending such refugees back would be difficult:

"The way you prevent that is you respond the way we're responding right now, in dealing with the humanitarian crisis immediately," he said. "That's the way you avoid boatloads of refugees leaving Haiti and coming to the United States."

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