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Feds: U.S. Haitians can apply for immigration benefit

Haitians in the United States may be able to apply for a temporary immigration benefit allowing them to live and work in the United States legally as soon as Thursday.

In two briefings Wednesday, Andrea J. Quarantillo, district director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in New York City, said eligible Haitians will be able to submit applications when a notice is published in the Federal Register, which is expected Thursday or Friday.

Called Temporary Protected Status, the designation was granted to Haitians living illegally in the U.S. as of Jan. 12 by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Friday. The designation is given to citizens from countries suffering from civil wars or natural disaster, such as the earthquake that devastated Haiti last week. "It is an 18-month designation with the opportunity of extension if the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security deems it appropriate," said Quarantillo.

In some recent cases, such as Honduras and Nicaragua, the government has extended TPS for a decade.

Quarantillo said Haitians will have six months to register for the status. "Our purpose is to make sure that Haiti, in its vulnerable position, is not overwhelmed with people from the U.S. returning," she said.

Officials estimate up to 200,000 undocumented Haitians nationwide are eligible for the status. That includes about 30,000 who face final deportation orders.

To be eligible, applicants must prove they are Haitian nationals and have lived in the United States since before Jan. 12, the day of the massive quake. They must not have been convicted of a felony or two misdemeanors while in the United States.

Quarantillo said the agency would consider waivers for the application fees, which are $50 for the TPS application and $340 for an optional employment authorization form. There is also a $80 biometric fee of all applicants age 14 or older.

In a briefing with more than 100 immigration advocates and attorneys Wednesday, Quarantillo urged Haitians to spread the word in the community to use only accredited agencies when filling out TPS applications. "We do not want people in the Haitian community to fall victim to scam artists and unscrupulous immigration consultants," she said.

"There should be no fee or nominal fees for this kind of work," she added. "It's not that complicated."

Though there is no guarantee TPS for Haitians will be extended - and the government will have fingerprints and identifying information of all applicants - advocates and attorneys say eligible Haitians who are undocumented should apply.

"I think that you're always better off being counted and being known rather than being an nonentity," said Carlos Piovanetti, an attorney with Immigration Legal Services of Long Island, a nonprofit in Brentwood. "Do you take a small risk? Yes. But the risk is so minuscule that to me it's not even a risk. It's a no-brainer."

Assemb. Philip Ramos (D-Brentwood) will sponsor a clinic Saturday for Haitians seeking assistance on filling out Temporary Protected Status applications. About a half-dozen area immigration attorneys will provide legal services at no cost. Applicants will have to pay relevant application fees or they can apply for a waiver.

The clinic will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Portuguese American Center at 17 Third Ave. in Brentwood.

On Wednesday, Immigration Legal Services of Long Island will complete TPS applications free of charge between 5 and 9 p.m. at its office at 1044 Suffolk Avenue, second floor, in Brentwood.

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