Saturday, May 14, 2011

Haitian quake refugees who came to USA for surgeries, prosthetics facing expiration of visas

From USA Today:

MIAMI — Time is running out for many Haitians who came to the USA after the 2010 earthquake and now may be sent back to a country in chaos.

President-elect Michel Martell, who will be inaugurated Saturday, has an ambitious agenda to restore his country, but conditions are grim: hundreds of thousands still living in tents, scant public services, a stubborn cholera outbreak.

In the USA, meanwhile, many earthquake survivors are jobless, scrambling for medical care and relying on friends and family for food and shelter.

Visas are expiring, and immigration officials have not acted on most requests for a change in status that would let them stay in the USA and earn a living.

After the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, the U.S. government allowed Haitians to be in this country under various conditions:

•Humanitarian parole is an emergency status that was granted to 1,400 Haitians, including those who came for medical care. They are allowed to stay and work for up to one year. However, if the parole is not extended, they must go home.

•Visitor visas were issued to 1,300 Haitians, including some escorting children or medical evacuees. Visitor or tourist visas are good for up to a year, and extensions may be granted, but the visitor is not allowed to take a job. Since the earthquake, Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) has approved 77% of 1,736 requests from Haitians with visitor visas, including some who were here before the earthquake, who want to extend their stay.

•Deferred action allows those with visitor visas to upgrade their status to stay longer and work. Since the earthquake, 835 Haitians have requested deferred action. Of those, a third have been approved; the rest are pending.

Such requests are often granted in less than a month, says Cheryl Little of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

"The fact that the government has not granted deferred actions (to Haitians) is appalling," she says. "Why would we not grant a small number of Haitians the ability to recover and give them a temporary reprieve?"

Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, a Miami social service agency, says Haitians who came after the earthquake need to work so they can rebuild their lives and return to Haiti. "The tourist visa enables you to see tourist sites," Metellus says. "You can go to Disney World, but that's it."

The Manigat family wants to go home, but not with Haiti in its current condition. For now, they want to get jobs in Miami.

The Manigats arrived on visitor visas a little more than a month after the earthquake. They had been living on the street in Port-au-Prince with their daughters, then 7 and 2, after their third-floor apartment collapsed. In Miami, they moved in with Fritz Gerald Manigat's sister. They sleep on the floor.

Last summer, the family's visas expired, and they filed for deferred action.

Still no decision, Manigat, 39, says in Creole through a translator. "We are not able to work. We are in limbo."

Crowding in with his sister, her husband and their young son has strained relationships. Manigat returned to Haiti briefly last spring to look for work, but he says things were so bad he couldn't take his wife and daughters back. He and his wife, Marie France, 35, worry that they will be deported.

Matt Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CIS, would not comment on why CIS has granted few deferred actions for Haitian visitors. "We are continuing to review the issue," he said in an e-mail.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., says the plight of the earthquake survivors has become entangled in the stalled national debate over immigration.

After the earthquake, the Department of Homeland Security created a temporary status to allow Haitians who were here illegally before the disaster to remain and work for up to 18 months. The department has approved 47,000 of 54,000 applications for "temporary protected status." Wilson wants President Obama to give post-quake refugees the same deal.

Even the few Haitians who have had their status upgraded face challenges.

Sandrise Vital, 30, (pictured) had a tourist visa when she was flown to South Florida for medical care. A wall fell on her after the earthquake, and doctors had to amputate her left leg. She is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair.

She received deferred action and would like to work, but for now, she says, she needs to recuperate. She needs neurological care and rehabilitation therapy she can't afford. She is not eligible for government medical benefits.

Vital spends her days in the home of her cousin's ex-wife, a nurse, in West Palm Beach. She speaks English, French and Creole and would like to work as a translator.

"There are more options here," Vital says. "To stay would be a good thing."