by Kathy Para
JBA Pro Bono Committee Chair
While the nation of Haiti deals with the catastrophic and deadly conditions left by January’s earthquake, Catholic Charities, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid (JALA), Florida Coastal School of Law (FCSL), Holland & Knight, and other legal and social organizations throughout Northeast Florida are joining forces to help Haitians currently working in the United States to remain here so they can continue to financially support those who they left behind.
“This is a true pooling of resources to focus staff and mobilize volunteers to assist our local Haitian community in its efforts to support family members back home,” observes Nancy Hale, attorney in JALA’s Refugee Immigration Project. “We are in need of pro bono attorneys who also want to help, particularly those who speak French. We have reached out to the Northeast Florida Haitian community and are working diligently to help them obtain Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and employment authorization. We need pro bono attorneys to help with the filing of these applications before the July 20, 2010 deadline.”
TPS is an emergency measure enacted by the White House shortly after the earthquake struck. It enables Haitian nationals working in the United States to remain here for at least an additional 18 months (or longer, if extended), so that they may continue to support other Haitians back home.
Not everyone who felt the need to jump on a plane and personally bring relief to those suffering in the Caribbean nation could do so. Much like FCSL Professor Ericka Curran and many of her students at the school’s Immigration Clinic, they found other, perhaps even more useful, methods of helping their fellow man.
Curran and her students specialize in immigration law, so they found a way in which the law could help feed, clothe, and shelter some of the thousands of earthquake victims — by advocating for the creation of TPS and for assisting Haitian nationals to file for this status. Other organizations that are part of the Haitian TPS effort are the FCSL Caribbean Law Student Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). AILA board member and Board certified immigration attorney David Vedder will be presenting to the Haitian community on family based immigration issues.
“I just really felt helpless after the earthquake,” said FCSL third-year law student and Haiti native Vanessa Bernadotte, whose father was in Haiti during the quake and survived. “This is a way for me to give back something to where I came from.”
Shortly after the quake, Curran, who directs FCSL’s Immigration Clinic, Hale and representatives of Catholic Charities met and decided that such a legal response could help bring real relief to the island nation.
“Students at Coastal have been writing letters to the President explaining the need for such a response since the Hurricanes in 2008 and stepped up efforts after the quake,” Curran said.
The much needed relief was finally granted in January.
Curran and those in her clinic already specialize in helping immigrants attain U.S. citizenship. So focusing specifically on Haitians and the TPS program was a small, but important shift. Fliers to alert Haitians to this emergency program were created and translated into Créole (Haiti’s official language) by JALA staff and FCSL students. The goal is to get as many Haitians as possible to attend an informational meeting about TPS to be held at the law school.
“Until that time,” Hale said, “It is really impossible to predict the scope of the need for TPS assistance in Jacksonville and the number of pro bono attorneys needed.”
“We are blessed at Florida Coastal to have a diverse student body. Our Haitian American students are a tremendous resource ready to reach out to a community in crisis. The students help us build trust through their linguistic and cultural ties to the community,” Curran said.
That’s what second-year student Bruneley Lalanne is hoping. Lalanne, who was born in the U.S., will be working in this effort to honor her Haitian grandparents who died in the earthquake.
“They would go out of their way to help anyone,” Lalanne said of her grandparents. “And this is what I can do to honor them.”
At JALA, pro bono attorneys and law students will begin individual evening intake sessions on March 2 with as many Haitian workers as possible to begin their TPS applications. Through recruiting efforts such as those of Holland & Knight Associate and Chesterfield Smith Fellow, Marlysha Myrthil, pro bono attorneys are stepping forward to take some of the cases and assist with the filings. More volunteer attorneys are needed.
“Assisting Haitian nationals with TPS filings is the kind of pro bono project that any attorney can participate in. The training is simple and one doesn’t have to be an immigration expert to get involved,” said Myrthil about pro bono attorney recruiting. Myrthil’s recruiting efforts add to those of Curran and members of AILA have already agreed to help. Pro bono attorneys are provided with resource materials and guidance relevant for his/her specific case.
In addition, attorneys representing JALA clients are covered by JALA professional liability insurance. Attorneys interested in assisting our local Haitian immigrant population with TPS filings, should contact Kathy Para, Esq., Pro Bono Development Coordinator at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid ([email protected])
“For some attorneys writing a check is important but not enough of a response for those suffering in Haiti. This is a way to personally make a difference in the lives of people who are really in need of advocates,” said Para. “The Haitian recovery is going to be a long, slow process. Most of the Haitian workers here in the United States have a close, personal bond with their country and its people. They don’t just want to help, they have to help. It is their children, mothers, brothers and sisters who are suffering down there. Long after we have stopped writing checks, they will still be working to help their family members and friends back home. And we are fortunate to be in a position to help them do it.”