Haitians gathered at a Central Islip church erupted into applause Sunday when they learned that the undocumented among them can now legally work - and send money - to help their country's relief effort through temporary protected status.
State Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Central Islip), speaking at a special church service, said a one-day legal clinic has been set up on Long Island for undocumented Haitians. Lawyers there will help them apply for the special immigration status, announced last week, that allows them to work and live in the country for up to 18 months.
Ramos said help will be available on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Long Island Portuguese American Center at 17 Third Ave. in Brentwood.
He also said he is trying to send four or five local Haitians to the Caribbean island country to get in touch with loved ones who have not been able to reach relatives here.
The Obama administration granted the temporary protected status to those Haitians who may be in the U.S. illegally in light of the massive earthquake there.
"This should help a great deal," said Ketile Chrispin, president of Haitian Americans United for Change, as she spoke to dozens of Haitians at Eglise Baptiste Da Siloe. "A lot of people had lost hope but this is relief to help the community. This is great. Everybody is happy."
Chrispin translated Ramos' words for the group, many of whom speak French and Creole.
The announcement provided some respite for those Haitians feeling helpless in the face of tragedy in their homeland. The Caribbean island-nation on Tuesday suffered an earthquake that experts said was its worst in over 200 years.
"Please, urge anybody, regardless of their status, if they have deportation orders, send them to me," said Ramos, responding to questions. "I'll assure them that this is not a trap to be able to deport them. Anybody who has a deportation order right now is eligible for temporary protected status. That means they will be a resident, immediately be able to work and they can come out of the shadows."
Some in the audience still appeared to be cautious about a program that seemed too good to be true, but Ramos assured them that it has worked for people from other countries.
"Any Haitian who has come here prior to this week is eligible," he added, "regardless of how they came here."