Miami – More than 100 Haitians crammed inside a Catholic church Tuesday to ask questions about a federal government designation that will allow possibly hundreds of thousands of illegal Haitian immigrants to work in the U.S. and send money home during the next 18 months.
Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas said Haitians will be able to start filing their applications for the Temporary Protected Status on Thursday, the day official notice of the program is expected to be published in the Federal Register. Only those in the U.S. before the earthquake hit their Caribbean homeland a week ago will be eligible.
Mayorkas warned that applications sent before Thursday would likely to be delayed.
Haitians have already started showing up at centers to get help filling out the forms.
At Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, Randy McGrorty, head of Catholic Charities Legal Services, fielded questions, mostly in Creole, about whether applicants could bring family members from Haiti, whether they could qualify for college financial aid and whether they could get any help paying the $470 application fee.
Although the government has cautioned the protection is only temporary — 18 months to be exact — some of those applying hoped it would lead to a longer reprieve.
Julie Bermane, 19, of Miami, said she has lived in the U.S. since she was 3 but because she was here illegally has been unable to go to college or get a job.
"There's a lot of things in my life that I want to do, but this stuff has been holding me back," she said. If her application is granted, she said, "I can go out and see the world."
The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is expecting about 100,000 to 200,000 applications.
"We are drawing on expertise from the past" to be ready for the onslaught, said Mayorkas, who also cautioned applicants to be wary of people who may try to scam those looking for help filling out applications.
The U.S. has granted temporary protected status to about 350,000 people from a handful of Central American and African countries.
Mayorkas is heading to Miami on Wednesday to meet with community members to educate people on the process and take calls from around the country.
More meetings will be held in Orlando and Tampa, as well as Newark, New Jersey and New York City, where the highest concentrations of Haitians live.
Mayorkas said the agency has redesigned its Web site, www.uscis.gov, so information about Haiti can be easily found in English, French and Creole.