MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. government said Tuesday it is granting Haitian immigrants who fled their poor Caribbean nation after last year's devastating earthquake more time to live and work legally in the U.S. while Haiti rebuilds.
Haitian immigrants with temporary protected status, which was set to expire in July, can apply to extend the residency and employment benefits for another 18 months, until January 2013, authorities said.
Originally, only Haitians living illegally in the U.S. before the Jan. 12, 2010, quake that shattered Haiti's capital were eligible for the protected status. Now, Haitians who arrived up to one year after the quake and have lived here continuously ever since also are eligible for temporary protected status, Homeland Security officials said in a statement.
Many of those Haitians were medically evacuated after the earthquake on temporary visas, humanitarian parole or through other immigration measures that are expiring or did not allow employment.
"They've been stranded here. They have no place to return to and no ability to sustain themselves," said Randy McGrorty, head of the Archdiocese of Miami's Catholic Legal Services.
The pool of Haitians eligible for temporary protected status now includes those who were living in the U.S. before Jan. 12, 2010, but who did not apply for that, Homeland Security officials said.
Application information will be posted in English, French and Haitian Creole on the Department of Homeland Security's website.
"In the extended aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, the United States has remained fully committed to upholding our responsibility to assist individuals affected by this tragedy," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
"Providing a temporary refuge for Haitian nationals who are currently in the United States and whose personal safety would be endangered by returning to Haiti is part of this administration's continuing efforts to support Haiti's recovery," she added.
The extension was "nothing short of a lifeline for tens of thousands of Haitians living in the U.S, especially South Florida," said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla. Her Miami district represents more Haitians than any other in Congress and she and 50 others in Congress appealed in a letter last week to President Barack Obama to give those affected more time.
So far, at least 48,000 Haitians have been granted the protected status afforded to immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters. A handful of African and Central American countries also have temporary protected status.
Haitians who arrived after Jan. 12, 2011, or who are not currently in the U.S. do not qualify.
Immigration advocates estimate that thousands of Haitians may be affected by the re-designation of temporary protected status for Haiti. Those numbers include those who could not afford the application fees or were afraid to reveal their illegal immigration status before the previous application deadline, they said.
"The more Haitians who get temporary legal status and work permits, the more remittances and aid they will send to help rebuild Haiti," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
The re-designation reflects the abysmal conditions that continue in Haiti, where 600,000 people still live in temporary camps and a cholera outbreak has killed nearly 5,000 people, according to the advocates.
They also contend that continuing deportations of Haitians with criminal convictions in the U.S. are inhumane.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement suspended deportations to Haiti after the earthquake, but resumed removing convicted criminals in January. The U.S. Coast Guard has continued returning Haitians picked up at sea to the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic.
Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.