Yolaine Marie Adrien breaks down sobbing as she discusses the Haitian earthquake, which robbed her of her brothers' and sisters' lives, her house, her life in Haiti.
The 32-year-old Port-au-Prince woman, who worked in a printer's office, was visiting her aunt in Miami when the disaster struck. Her two children and mother are safe in Haiti.
But Adrien, like thousands of other Haitians, is happy about one thing these days -- that the Obama administration has agreed to temporary protected status for Haitians living in the United States. Adrien ventured to the Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood last month to get free help filling out the forms needed to get permission to stay in the U.S.
If she is approved by the U.S. Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services, Adrien will be allowed to remain in the United States rather than being forced to return to Haiti, where she said she has no chance of making a living or even finding housing and food.
While welcomed by the Haitian-American community, the TPS offer is turning out to have its pitfalls, say attorneys and paralegals. Among the problems: The status is good for only 18 months. After that, they say, what are the thousands of Haitians to do? Experts say there is no way the devastated country will be rebuilt by then.
Also, the application fee of $400 to $500 is something many Haitians simply don't have. Fee waivers are offered, but extensive proof is required, and some attorneys and paralegals claim the immigration agency is sitting on the applications that include fee waivers. The USCIS denies this.
Some believe many Haitians are hesitant about applying for fear they will be marked for future deportation. Then there are the people who lack the necessary documents -- passports or birth certificates -- and must rely on the overwhelmed Haitian consulate for help.
"There are a couple of issues that are problematic," said Susana Barciela, policy director of Miami's Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "But we're happy about the TPS. We have been advocating for TPS for Haiti since September 2008, after four hurricanes hit the country."
CIS spokeswoman Ana Santiago said a total of 28,465 people had applied for TPS status through last week, with 1,300 seeking fee waivers and 519 waivers approved.
"As we receive the [applications], we act on them in a timely and efficient manner," she said. "No two cases are the same, and we look closely at each application." A determination on extending the program beyond 18 months has yet to be made by the Department of Homeland Security.
EMERGENCIES TRIGGER TIPS
The government typically grants temporary protected status to foreign nationals staying in the United States when an emergency strikes their country. TPS has been granted to Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and Kosovans, to name a few. The Nicaraguan and Honduran designations date back to 1999.
The government estimates 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians in the United States are eligible for the special status. But immigration groups are concerned because so few Haitians -- including 15,000 in Florida and 3,500 in New York -- have applied so far.
"Florida is doing a better job than other places because Florida has the largest population of Haitians," Barciela said. "After the initial push, we're seeing a slowdown."
Richard Champagne, president of the Haitian Lawyers Association, said he was concerned that Haitian residents in Florida outside South Florida may not have gotten news of the program and may not have the opportunity to get free help.
"The deadline for applying is six months," he said, "and I'm concerned they may not know about it."
Santiago said CIS has committed to providing work permits to TPS applicants within 90 days, so approvals are just beginning now.
The legal community in South Florida has come together to help Haitians apply for TPS pro bono. FIAC and Catholic Charities Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami are the most active. Catholic Charities holds free Friday walk-in clinics at the Notre Dame church and consults with Haitians daily at its Wilton Manors office in Broward County.
Catholic Charities has signed up more than 1,500 applicants, said Myriam Mezadieu, chief administrative officer for Catholic Legal Services. Many lack money for the application fees and leave to try to scrounge up the money from relatives before returning to complete the forms.
Still, "TPS was a wonderful thing for us," Mezadieu said. "It was time they did it. Deporting somebody wouldn't be a good idea at this time. I'm grateful to the administration."
At the Notre Dame church, Mezadieu and two paralegals sit at desks in a large room, meeting with a constant stream of Haitians. Paralegal Cassy Pierre is a Creole-speaking volunteer. Paralegal Damaris Gil works for Catholic Charities but does not speak Creole. "They usually send me the people who speak English," she said.
For the first two weeks, the line was out the door into the parking lot, and the paralegals worked until midnight, the paralegals said.
Stacks of applications are taken back to the main Catholic Charities offices, where lawyers review the applications and file them with the government.
Hearing their clients' stories can be trying, the volunteers said.
"One man said, 'I lost my wife, I lost my son,'" Pierre said. "It's hard to hear."
The group acknowledges some of applicants have been living illegally in the country for many years -- some, for decades -- and are taking advantage of the TPS offer to gain legal status.
HELP FROM LAW FIRMS, SCHOOLS
Law firms and law schools have been helping the applicants in various ways, first with financial aid after the earthquake and now with TPS volunteers.
The Florida Bar Foundation has awarded grants totaling $297,000 to legal aid offices in Florida that have seen an influx of Haitians applying for TPS.
Duane Morris collaborated with FIAC and Florida International University to host a pro bono TPS legal clinic on Jan. 30. Numerous lawyers and staff helped more than 100 Haitians who attended.
Greenberg Traurig also has launched a pro bono TPS effort.
All-DAY TPS CLINIC
The Haitian Lawyers Association in conjunction with the city of Miami Gardens and the Cuban American Bar Association held an all-day TPS clinic last weekend.
The event was extensively promoted on Haitian radio stations. This was the third TPS clinic sponsored by the Haitian Lawyers Association.
About 30 lawyers volunteered to help, Champagne said.
Later this month, the University of Miami School of Law's Health & Elder Law Clinic is hosting law student groups from around the country for an alternative spring break.
Groups of 10 to 15 students from Stanford University, the University of San Francisco, University of Memphis, New England School of Law and UM's law school will spend their free time working on TPS applications rather than "sunning and funning."
So much pro bono help has been offered that lawyers trying to sign up paying clients for TPS help have seen only a few.
"I've only done a couple," said West Palm Beach, Fla., lawyer Byrnes Guillaume. "They come to me with questions, then they go to Catholic Charities to get their forms processed. Catholic Charities takes all my clients."
For more Law.com coverage of the effort to help Haiti, click here.