Clinic gives Haitians legal resource after quake

By Tita Parham | May 12, 2010 {1172}

ORLANDO — Fezane Bruno is like many Haitians living in the United States. She left her native country in search of a job and a better way of life.

Now, in the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti Jan. 12, the U.S. government is giving Bruno and thousands of other Haitians an opportunity to stay and work for at least 18 months without fear of being deported.

Michael Mills (left) helps a client complete his application for temporary protected status. Mills is a member of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville and a local attorney. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1438. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Haitians can apply for temporary protected status (TPS), a special, humanitarian designation the government grants to foreign nationals who can’t return to their countries because conditions there are unsafe or unstable. A devastating natural disaster or armed conflict is usually the cause.

But between the fees to file the necessary paperwork, the forms that need to be completed and uncertainty about what steps to take, gaining the status can be a difficult process.

A recent immigration clinic provided by the Florida Conference Justice For Our Neighbors ministry at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando helped make the task a little less daunting.

Volunteers from seven different United Methodist churches in the Central Florida area met in late February to work with a group of 12 Haitians — including two minors — to help them complete the seven-page application form. The Rev. Eliantus Valmyr, pastor at Emmanuel Haitian United Methodist Mission in Orlando, and the Rev. Thomas Touissant, pastor at Berea Haitian United Methodist Mission in the Pine Hills area of Orlando, brought many of them to the clinic.

Only Haitians who can show they have resided continuously in the United States since Jan. 12 and been physically present here since Jan. 21, when the status was designated, are eligible to apply. The status is in effect until July 2011 or longer if the government deems it necessary to extend the time period.

“It’s a humanitarian response to a grave crisis,” said the Rev. Marilyn Beecher. “Because the devastation is so severe (in Haiti), there’s really no way for people to return.”

Beecher is a missionary with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries serving as a Church and Community Worker in the Florida Conference’s East Central District. She helps coordinate the district’s outreach ministries and the conference’s Justice For Our Neighbors ministry, which holds monthly clinics that provide free legal advice and services to anyone needing help with immigration issues. The clinics are held at First United Methodist Church and Berea Haitian Mission in Pine Hills and Union Street United Methodist Church in Clearwater.
 

It’s a humanitarian response to a grave crisis. Because the devastation is so severe (in Haiti), there’s really no way for people to return.

Rev. Marilyn Beecher


Beecher said the United States has a history of providing the status — after conflicts between Bosnia and Herzegovina and in El Salvador and Liberia, for example. Individuals from those countries were able to stay in the United States and work temporarily once the protected status was granted.

The status also helps address a country’s economic instability, Beecher said, enabling family members to work in the United States and send money home to help rebuild.

“TPS is not designed to help people stay here (indefinitely),” said Mayuris Pimentel, supervising attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors.

People who are working to obtain permanent legal status must continue that process after the temporary status has expired, Pimentel said. And while they have the temporary status, they are encouraged to continue whatever process they were undertaking.

“It’s for people who are undocumented, who don’t already have the right to work,” Pimentel said, adding the status only gives people authorization to work. It doesn’t give them access to benefits.

“A person can have their work permit within two to four months (after applying),” Pimentel said. “But it can take between four to 12 months to get a case (status) approved, depending on any number of complications a person may have with their case.”

In search of a better life

More than 500,000 migrants from Haiti came to the United States in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Of those, 230,000 were lawful permanent residents.

Although, she’s an attorney, Scharome Deaton (left) says understanding the paperwork and process of helping Haitian nationals, like Fezane Bruno (right), gain temporary protected status is difficult. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1439. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

They’ve come to the United States to find jobs, Pimentel said, and many are working, thanks to employers who hire them despite their lack of documentation.

Most relocated with their families or came to live with family already here. Others sent their children to live with extended family in the hopes they’d receive a better education and eventually have better job prospects.

The poverty of the country brought them here, Pimentel said. “They don’t see the opportunities to get of out of that cycle so they come here to have a better life,” she said.

Fezane’s brother, Jean, brought her and two of her four children — Catherine, 12, and Jeddy, 14 — to the clinic so all three could obtain temporary status.

Fezane has been in the United States for a year in search of work and a better education for her children, who were born in the Bahamas, where she lived after leaving Haiti. The children are considered Haitian nationals because Fezane was born in Haiti so they are eligible to apply.

Fezane hopes the status will help her, and eventually her son, get a job. Work permits are given to people between the ages of 14 and 65.

Pimentel says that’s a good strategy. Because the status could potentially be extended for years, children who receive it now might be old enough to work during that timeframe. And now is the window of opportunity to apply. People have until July 20 to submit their paperwork.

Jean agrees crime and poverty have forced people to leave Haiti, but he says the most common reason is lack of jobs. He left 11 years ago because he couldn’t find a job in his trade as a welder.

He’s not alone. More than two-thirds of the labor force in Haiti doesn’t have a formal job, according to the CIA World Factbook, and nearly 80 percent of the population lives under the poverty line — 54 percent in abject poverty. The country’s infant mortality rate is 37 among 224 countries, and in terms of life expectancy, Haiti ranks 181, with Haitians living an average of nearly 61 years.

An eye-opening experience

The paperwork can be confusing; the fees are expensive. It’s not an easy process, volunteers and organizers say.

“I learned a lot of things about being a U.S. citizen,” said Sunny Wilmot, a volunteer from First United Methodist Church in Winter Park. That was surprising to her, she said, considering she is a U.S. citizen.

“I didn’t even know what a United States visa looked like,” she said.

Sunny Wilmot (right) works with Catherine Bruno, 12, as she completes her application. Bruno’s 14-year-old brother Jeddy and mother applied for both the temporary status and authorization to work, which is given to people between the ages of 14 and 65. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1440. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Given her own lack of knowledge about the process, Wilmot questioned how readily available and easily accessible information is for people seeking citizenship or permanent status.

Wilmot and the other volunteers received about 90 minutes of training before helping clients complete their paperwork, which included five pages of questions. Clients were asked if they had trafficked illegal substances, been convicted of committing major crimes, been involved in terrorist activities or ever been deported, among other questions.

It’s a form that requires a lot of honesty, Pimentel said during the training. “If clients aren’t truthful on this form, they may ruin their chances for a permanent status or other statuses because the assumption is they will lie in the future,” she said.

It’s also a form that makes organizers scratch their heads, with questions about involvement in communist or other totalitarian parties or participation in Nazi persecution or genocide. Beecher questioned why statements related to an outdated political threat were included and whether anyone would answer in the affirmative to that kind of activity.

“The paperwork is a lot harder than I expected,” said Scharome Deaton, a member at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and an attorney. “Unless you do immigration law, you don’t know it.”

“Part of the difficulty,” Beecher said, “is the language barrier. Not only does there need to be translation, but Mayuris has to explain what everything means.”

That meant clients had to complete their forms together, one question at a time. Pimentel would read a question and provide an explanation; then Toussiant would translate both. In clinics with more legal resources, Pimental said, clients work one-on-one with an attorney, which speeds the process. In addition to Pimentel and Deaton, the only other volunteers that day with professional legal experience were a legal intern working with Justice For Our Neighbors and another local attorney.

“Even when you’re trying to know what to do and keep up with things, it’s just hard,” Beecher said of current immigration laws and the steps to gain legal status.

Another problem, Deaton said, is the misconception among Haitians that they don’t need to go through the process. In her work as a defense attorney representing insurance companies, Deaton says she has contact with a number of people within the Haitian community. She says many have said they don’t need to take any action because they are from Haiti.

Deaton says she was also surprised at the cost to apply for the temporary status, especially for people who have so few resources. Fezane will have to pay $990 for three application fees and two authorizations to work, one for herself and another for her son. When an application is flagged for some reason or requires a waiver, other fees may be added.

Attorney Mayuris Pimentel explains a question on the application form to the Rev. Eliantus Valmyr and some of the clinic’s clients. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1441. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Valmyr says clients who can’t afford the fees often ask family members for help; his church has helped about five people. A $5,000 grant from the Florida Conference Peace With Justice ministry was given to help fund the cost of the clinic and provide financial assistance to clients.

Then there is the time it takes to fill out the forms, which took about four hours, and the burden it puts on family members. Fezane got a ride from her brother and his two children who Deaton said were “just hanging out” while Fezane and her children completed their forms. Another client brought an ailing relative, who slept during most of the clinic.

“As lay people, it seems like it’s so easy, that the government is just handing these (temporary status) out,” Deaton said. “And it’s hard.”

Spreading the word

As of April 9, about 44,500 people had applied for the temporary status, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. More than 10 percent of the applications were rejected, however, because they were filed with the wrong fees, the wrong forms were used or information was missing.

Given the number of people who qualify for the status, organizers had hoped more people would attend the clinic. They publicized it with leaders of the conference’s Haitian churches and missions, who in turn let members of their communities know about the service.

“The real challenge is getting the word out and educating people about what TPS means and what they need to do to apply,” Beecher said. “Churches become real leaders in providing education because people trust their pastors.”

There is the misconception, Beecher said, that people automatically receive the temporary status. People were also skeptical the clinic would be a real benefit, Pimentel said.

In addition to helping clients complete their paperwork, the Rev. Thomas Touissant (left) also translated much of the information on the seven-page immigration form for the group. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #10-1442. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Valmyr said some people went to other locations to complete the paperwork because they did not want to wait until the date of the clinic. In some cases, he said, the help people received was not correct.

In addition to the Orlando clinic, the Rev. Janet Horman, pastor at Killian Pines United Methodist Church in Miami, worked with a local legal aid society to coordinate a clinic in the Miami area in February, and Barry University’s law program in Orlando partnered with Legal Aid Society of the Orange County Bar Association to provide legal clinics for people in the Central Florida area.

Pimentel and Beecher are hoping to hold an additional clinic in Central Florida and several in Clearwater.

Justice For Our Neighbors is an outreach ministry of the conference through the United Methodist Committee on Relief and a conference Advance Special, #102030. More information about the ministry or future clinics is available by contacting Pimentel at jfon.orlando@gmail.com or Beecher at mbeecher@flumc.org. Both may also be reached at the East Central District office at 407-896-2230.

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News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011, tparham@flumc.org, Orlando
 
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.


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