Wislyne Jean Louis and other Haitian nationals have their pictures taken during a temporary protected status application clinic on Jan. 30 in New York City. (Credit: Michael Nagle/Getty Images)
As of Monday afternoon, just 1,500 of the estimated 200,000 Haitians living in the U.S. illegally had applied for temporary protected status, an emergency program that grants 18-month visas to undocumented immigrants in the event of a natural disaster or political instability in their home country.
Awarding protected status to Haitians had been touted as a form of immediate, indirect relief. Haitians with legal status will be able to get higher-paying jobs and thus send more remittances back home to speed up the recovery, the theory holds. Even before the earthquake, the island nation depended on remittances for roughly a third of its GDP, and their importance is likely to grow in the years to come. No hard numbers exist, but DHS estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 undocumented Haitians are living in the U.S. illegally and eligible to apply for TPS.
President Obama granted Haiti protected status Jan. 15, and the Department of Homeland Security began accepting applications Jan. 21.
But as applications trickle in, it's becoming clear that TPS will not instantly unleash the flood of remittances that advocates hoped for. Immigrant advocacy groups in Florida say their offices are packed with Haitians looking for help with applications, but plenty of hurdles remain. The six-page application, filled with legal jargon, is "very, very time-consuming" and slowing down the process, argued Susana Barciela, policy director for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which has helped hundreds of would-be applicants already.
"Some of these questions you have to be very careful because there are potential consequences," Barciela said in an e-mail. "People have to bring documents, and some have to be translated.... Then you get big families, and every single member (children included) has to have an application filled out -- even if much of it is the same information."
Applicants also need to cobble together the $470 application fee and wait for their forms to reach Washington and then be reviewed by Homeland Security officials. All told, it will likely be months before large numbers of Haitians get visas, and even then they will need to look for higher-paying jobs that let them send more money home. That's to say nothing of the argument that TPS won't increase remittances in the long term (subscription).
But if the soaring hopes for TPS haven't yet come to pass, neither have the fears of the program's detractors, who worried that Haitians in Haiti might mistakenly believe they could benefit from TPS (only those who were in the U.S. before the Jan. 12 earthquake are eligible) and migrate to Florida. Incredibly, the Coast Guard still had not interdicted a single Haitian in the Florida Straits since the earthquake. By comparison, the Coast Guard apprehended 1,782 would-be refugees making the treacherous crossing in 2009.