By Alfonso Chardy Crline
Hundreds of undocumented Haitian immigrants crowded inside Notre Dame D'Haiti Catholic Church on Monday morning for help in filing applications for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a federal immigration program that will allow them to remain legally in the United States and obtain work permits.
A work permit was the priority for many of the more than 500 people who rushed into the church in Little Haiti seeking to file for TPS. Those interviewed at the church said they need jobs to send money to surviving or injured relatives back home, so they can rebuild their lives.
``My house in Port-au-Prince collapsed during the earthquake,'' said Jacques Claudore Deravil, 50, one of the Haitians seeking TPS at the church in Little Haiti. ``I need to work to send money to my wife and children who have been sleeping in the streets since the earthquake.''
Church officials set up an office at the church, 110 NE 62nd Street, to help Haitian immigrants at no charge with the federal TPS application process.
Though Catholic Legal Services is helping Haitian migrants fill out TPS forms for free, the migrants still have to pay the TPS filing fee plus fees for fingerprints and work permits: a total of almost $500. The TPS-related work permit is $340, the TPS filing fee is $50 and the fingerprint fee is $80.
Those who cannot afford to pay can file a separate form requesting a fee waiver. But Randolph McGrorty, executive director of the Archdiocese of Miami's Catholic Legal Services, said he is advising Haitian migrants to pay if they can because asking for a waiver will delay delivery of the TPS status and the work permit.
``Anyone who can get together the fees we are telling them to go head and do it because it will make the process go more quickly,'' said McGrorty. ``Obviously it's a lot of money.''
For now, McGrorty said, Catholic Legal Services staffers are mainly explaining the TPS process to all those who show up. If they have their paperwork ready, staffers fill out the TPS forms. If not, they have to return at a later date. McGrorty said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that will process the permits, is not yet prepared to accept applications.
Catholic officials will be at the Little Haiti church from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of the week and later Catholic Legal Services plans to open additional TPS clinics elsewhere in South Florida, said McGrorty.
Catholic Legal Services will also assist TPS applicants at its main office, 150 SE 2nd Avenue, Suite 200, Miami, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. The office, however, was closed Monday due to the Martin Luther King holiday.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a federal agency, will process the large number of applications expected from more than 30,000 undocumented Haitians estimated nationwide -- the majority in South Florida.
The Obama administration announced Friday it would grant TPS to undocumented Haitians who were present in the United States as of Jan. 12 -- the day of the catastropic earthquake that left large portions of Port-au-Prince and other cities in ruins, killing tens of thousands of people.
Those who might arrive after Jan. 12 will be repatriated to Haiti, officials said -- though all deportations to Haiti are suspended for now. While shielded from deportation, Haitian TPS holders cannot become permanent U.S. residents or U.S. citizens. TPS does not provide a path to a green card.
For now, a work permit to land an immediate job is the priority for undocumented Haitian migrants so they can start sending money home to help their families.
``My wife was injured in the earthquake and I need to send money to her to help,'' said Jean Mon, 62, who was at the Little Haiti church asking for TPS.
Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement that the TPS designation was part of the administration's effort to support Haiti's recovery following ``a disaster of historic proportions.''
But she also made it a point to discourage Haitians from leaving the country -- a sign the administration would crack down on illegal immigration.
TPS will enable the Haitians without legal immigration status to remain here legally for 18 months.
TPS is granted to selected immigrants in the United States who cannot safely return to their homelands because of natural disasters, armed conflicts or other emergencies. Those eligible are allowed to remain here, obtain work permits and temporary stays for specific periods -- a status often renewed indefinitely.
In addition to Haiti, the Department of Homeland Security has designated citizens from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan eligible for TPS.
The application process for TPS will be handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a federal agency. Haitians in the United States eligible to apply for TPS should call the USCIS toll-free number: 800-375-5283 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 800-375-5283 end_of_the_skype_highlighting. They can also visit uscis.gov.