U.S. halts deportations of undocumented Haitians due to earthquake
By Toluse Olorunnipa and Alfonso Chardy
The Obama administration is temporarily suspending deportations of undocumented Haitian nationals who are in the United States, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday at a news conference in Miami. But there are no immediate indications from the Obama administration that it would grant Haitian nationals Temporary Protected Status in the aftermath of Tuesday's earthquake.
Better known by its acronym TPS, the immigration benefit is given to certain immigrants in the United States who cannot safely return to their countries because of armed conflicts, natural disasters or other emergencies. Those eligible for TPS are allowed to remain in the United States.
The approval of TPS has been long sought by Haitian activists and South Florida lawmakers.
On Wednesday, South Florida's three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress -- Reps. Lincoln and his brother Mario Diaz-Balart, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, sent a letter Wednesday to President Obama requesting immediate humanitarian aid for Haiti and TPS for Haitian nationals in the United States.
``How much does Haiti have to suffer before Haitians in the United States are granted TPS,'' Lincoln Diaz-Balart told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone interview Wednesday. ``The reason TPS exists... as an option for the President is precisley for moments such as this in Haiti.''
Earlier in the day, Crist, speaking at the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center in Doral, told reporter that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had informed him by telephone that her department was halting removals of undocumented Haitian immigrants to the earthquake-devastated country.``In my conversations with Secretary Napolitano, she indicated that that was already in effect,'' said Crist, who spoke with Napolitano on Wednesday morning. ``According to the secretary, no one will be sent back.''
Department of Homeland Security Department officials officially announced the move in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon: ``Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary John Morton today halted all removals to Haiti for the time being in response to the devastation caused by yesterday's earthquake.' '
The move marks the first time federal officials have moved in a significant way to stop all deportations to Haiti. In the past, U.S. immigration officials have temporarily halted removals at a time of natural disasters, like floods or hurricanes. But they usually resume deportation as soon as the emergencies end.
Some Haitian community activists have said in recent weeks that deportations of noncriminals have essentially been halted for months. U.S. officials said Wednesday that ICE had temporarily suspended deportation flights to Haiti in September 2008 because of hurricane damage. But ICE removal flights resumed in March 2009, the officials said. Crist spoke during an appearance with Haitian-born state Rep. Yolly Roberson and other public officials, including U.S. Sen. George LeMieux. The comment about deportations came in response to a reporter's question about the long-running lobbying effort to get the White House to grant TPS to Haitians.
TPS allows foreign nationals in the category to get work permits and stay in the country temporarily, typically 12 to 18 months. Then the benefit is usually renewed, often indefinitely. Haitian community leaders and South Florida congressional leaders have been seeking TPS for Haitians for years. In response to a reporter's question on TPS, Roberson replied:
``If there is ever a time for the federal government to consider granting Temporary Protected Status to Haitians, this is now. This is not the time to send Haitians back to Haiti.''