Haitian immigrants learn about a new immigration program for Haitians living in the United States at the Federal Building in Manhattan, New York
Haitian immigrants learn about a new immigration program for Haitians living in the United States at the Federal Building in Manhattan, New York

Thousands of Haitians in the New York area, reeling from the devastation of last week's earthquake to family back home, found some help Wednesday at a briefing by U.S. immigration officials.

They walked, they took the subway, and they came to the Federal Building in Manhattan from Brooklyn to learn about a new immigration program for Haitian citizens living in the United States.  It was part of another intense day of searching for word of what is going on in their homeland, and for how the U.S. government might be able to help. Many, like Jean-Mary Celhomme, lost family members in the earthquake.

"I lost some cousins, almost six of them, lost of them," she said.  "They find six bodies, but we have more. They don't find them yet."

Celhomme was among New York-area Haitians who came to the federal briefing on the new immigration program.  They learned that Haitians who were here when the earthquake struck will be able to receive temporary protected status (TPS), even if they are in the U.S. illegally.  New York Citizenship Immigration Service district director Andrea Quarantillo explained:

"Haitian nationals will be able to remain in the U.S. legally, be able to obtain authorization to work legally in the United States, be eligible to obtain permission to travel outside the United  States, and return to their TPS status," she said.

Being able to travel home to help without fear of being denied re-entry to the U.S. is key.

"It's definitely a relief to us who live here because of what's happening, when everything's over we'll be able to go back to Haiti without worry, without nothing bad happening, we'll feel like we'll safe be over there and then come back to America safely," he said.

Reverend Terry Lee, founder of Immigrants Responding to Crisis, led members of his group to the meeting. Lee praised the federal initiative.

"I believe that by the outpouring of support it brings healing to the mind of the people," he noted.

Only Haitians already in the U.S. are eligible for temporary protected status.  People in the audience asked many other questions about where and how to apply. They learned, among other things, that Haitians who are now being held in detention centers will be released if they qualify for TPS.

Immigration official Andrea Quarantillo said the purpose of the program is simple: to help Haiti.

"The United States government doesn't want to overwhelm Haiti with many of their citizens returning to Haiti when they don't have the infrastructure to support it," she added.  "It's been absolutely devastated over there, and they could not support the return of a large group of people who had been in the U.S."

Just as importantly, she said, Haitians in the U.S. will be able to continue sending family back home some of the money they earn here.  It could make all the difference to them at this time of need.