by Kathy Para
JBA Pro Bono Committee Chair
The January earthquake in Haiti could be felt as far away as Jacksonville. This is where attorney Marlysha Myrthil’s recent Haitian client resided when the magnitude 7 quake shook his world.
“It was a very scary moment for him,” Myrthil said. “The quake was devastating, and he had two small children still living there.”
The client had been in America for several years, trying to make a better life for his family and working toward obtaining U.S. citizenship. And, while there was extended family in Haiti taking care of his children, there were many tense moments for him before he finally received word that they were safe.
But for Haitians living in the United States, the quake shook more than the earth. It shook the tenuous political ground upon which Myrthil’s client and thousands of other Haitians were standing.
The federal government, in a move designed to aid Haiti, offered Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to all Haitians living in the United States on Jan. 12 so that they could continue to work and send money home to their quake-ravaged relatives.
While this particular shake-up was designed to help, many wary Haitians viewed the sudden change with suspicion. They had grown up under a vastly different set of rules in their homeland and had encountered immigration policies that limited their ability to enter or remain in the U.S.
“Some Haitians are skeptical of the TPS program and are hesitant to come in and apply for it,” Myrthil said.
That’s what makes her particular TPS success story so special.
“It really was a very straightforward case,” she said. “Really, the successful part was that this particular man trusted the system and now he will be allowed to stay in the U.S. longer in order to help support his family back home.”
Under the TPS program, Haitians will be allowed to remain in the U.S. until at least July 2011, and there is a good possibility that the TPS expiration date will be extended even further, especially if conditions in Haiti remain devastated.
“It’s just unconscionable to deport Haitians trying to make an honest living back to Haiti at this time, and the government has recognized this.” Myrthil said. “A crucial part of Haiti’s recovery from this tragedy is the money that people can send back to their family in Haiti to help them rebuild their homes and their lives.” Myrthil is hoping that word of successful TPS cases such as this one will circulate among Jacksonville’s Haitian community and that more Haitians will come to Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and at least look into the possibility of filing for Temporary Protected Status.
A third-year attorney at Holland & Knight, Myrthil has worked on other immigration matters and was impressed with the streamlined nature of the Haitian TPS program.
“I really was pleasantly surprised to see how smoothly this case went compared to other types of immigration applications I’ve handled,” she said.
JALA, Catholic Charities, American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Florida Coastal School of Law Immigration Clinic have joined forces to reach out to the Jacksonville-area Haitian community, but the immigrants’ natural suspicion of the government has kept the effort from being as successful as it could be.
“I would love to do more of these cases,” Myrthil said, but the distrust is hard to overcome.
“Because of attorney-client privilege, these individuals are really not putting themselves in any danger by at least coming in and talking to an attorney at JALA,” Myrthil said. “And it could really help them out in the long run.”
There is also a fee-waiver that would keep applicants from having to pay the $340 TPS application fee.
The approval rate for citizenship asylum or refugee applications coming from Haitians is “very low,” Myrthil said. So the TPS program is a way for Haitians whose pending citizenship asylum/refugee applications might not be approved to stay in the country to work and continue to support themselves and their relatives back in Haiti.
“There has been such a great outpouring of support by the Jacksonville legal community,” Myrthil said. “JALA, Catholic Charities, AILA and Florida Coastal were among the first organizations that were really on top of this. Now we just need to encourage people to apply and not to be fearful.”
The Director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that the Department will extend the filing deadline for Haiti-TPS applications to Jan. 18, 2011. Thus, more pro bono attorneys will be needed to assist with the filing of these applications in the near future.
Attorneys interested in serving the Haitian immigrant population in the Fourth Judicial Circuit are encouraged to contact Kathy Para, Pro Bono Development Coordinator at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, [email protected], 356-8371, ext. 363.