Temporary Protected Status for Haitians: not an amnesty card for illegal immigrants

As the leading democracy of the Western Hemisphere, the US should be proud of its efforts to assist Haiti as it emerges from the rubble.

President Obama suspended the deportation of illegal Haitian immigrants living in the United States almost immediately following the earthquake that leveled Haiti last month.

That compassionate decision was followed quickly by the announcement of a new immigration program granting temporary protective status to up to 200,000 Haitians. This has drawn some criticism from those who misunderstand its purpose and effect.

The last thing we need is to fan the flames of another heated immigration debate in an already divided nation.

Let’s be clear: Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is not an amnesty card for those entering the US illegally.

Mr. Obama’s TPS order permits the 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians essentially trapped in the US after the earthquake to remain here lawfully and to file for work authorization documents.

Yes, approximately 30,000 Haitians who were in removal proceedings will be covered by the status and will receive a temporary reprieve from deportation. Protected status is not, however, forgiveness for arriving or remaining here illegally. To be approved for temporary protective status, Haitian immigrants must submit proof of Haitian citizenship and must show they were in the US before the day the earthquake struck Haiti.

More important, it provides a means for those 100,000-plus Haitians who have followed proper protocol, but whose visa status will soon expire, to remain here while their nation recovers.

Haitian students who have graduated and professional workers who have lost their jobs are among those who will strongly benefit from the order. Under normal circumstances, those people would be required to return home unless they could quickly adjust their status. Filing for Temporary Protected Status will ensure that time spent in the US following their visa expiration will not preclude them for filing for future immigration benefits, should they qualify for it.

Rather than compound that nation’s struggles, the TPS declaration recognizes that Haiti is in no position to receive its returning citizens and that Washington is prepared to provide them with a haven for a temporary period of 18 months.

The US has granted Temporary Protected Status before: for Hondurans and Nicaraguans in 1998 following a severe hurricane, and for Salvadorans in 2001 after a devastating earthquake in El Salvador. In both situations, TPS authority acted as a short-term solution, while allowing these immigrants to work and thus enrich our country.

Washington has acknowledged that it cannot return Haitians to a nation so ill-equipped to accept them. So it makes sense for the US government to provide the legal means for Haitians to support themselves while here.

Critics worry that a country reeling from debt and a recession can’t afford to support 200,000 Haitians. It’s a groundless worry, because benefits for both Haiti and America would be notable.

First, the filing fees associated with applying for Temporary Protected Status will help cover the expenses associated with processing applications and should not pose any particular burden to the US government.

Second, granting them employment authorization documents is one way to enable Haitian immigrants to seek higher paying jobs than those they sought while residing illegally. This, in turn, makes them less likely to require public assistance.

More jobs means Haitians can spend more here, boosting the US economy, and send more money to family members back in Haiti, boosting recovery efforts. This is a win-win situation.

It’s important to remember that the Temporary Protected Status order is temporary. Once the status expires, Haitians – both legal and illegal – will need to make arrangements to return to their home country, adjust their status, or risk being deported.

TPS amounts to little more than a stopgap measure for Haitians who would otherwise be required to return home to a ruined country.

As the leading democracy of the Western Hemisphere, the US should be proud of its efforts to assist Haiti as it emerges from the rubble.

The grant of Temporary Protected Status is just one measure out of many meant to lessen some of Haiti’s burden in the wake of an unimaginable catastrophe, and we are fortunate that our great nation, built on a rich immigrant heritage, has the means to help Haitians in their time of need both abroad and at home.

Michael J. Wildes is a partner of the immigration law firm Wildes & Weinberg P.C. and a former federal prosecutor with the US Attorney in Brooklyn (1989-93). While federal prosecutor, he worked on the Haitian Refugee Case where Haitian nationals were interdicted by US officials in international waters in the 1990s. He recently completed two terms as the mayor of Englewood, N.J.


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