The Obama administration extended a special immigration status on Friday to Haitians living illegally in the United States, protecting them from deportation for 18 months and allowing them to work here.
Calling the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake “a disaster of historic proportions,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she was making the designation, known as temporary protected status, for Haitian immigrants because their personal safety would be at risk if they were deported to Haiti.
Administration officials said the special status would cover at least 100,000 Haitians believed to be living in the United States illegally, as well as about 30,000 Haitians who have been ordered deported. Haitians who receive the status will obtain documents allowing them to work legally.
The administration’s decision followed a rising chorus of calls for the temporary status since the catastrophic earthquake on Tuesday. On Friday, 80 members of Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, and the conference of Roman Catholic bishops, sent appeals to the administration to grant the status.
Ms. Napolitano said the protection would only extend to Haitians already in the country. Officials have hesitated to grant the temporary status to Haitians for fear they would encourage a new exodus of desperate Haitians by boat towards Florida.
“Attempting to leave Haiti now will only bring more hardship to the Haitian people and nation,” Ms. Napolitano cautioned Friday afternoon.
The decision drew praise from advocates and elected officials from states with large Haitian populations, who, along with the Haitian government, have been pushing for the temporary protected status since December 2008.
“This is the right thing to do,” said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, in a statement. “Haitian immigrants already in the U.S. will not only be able to make money to support themselves, but also to send remittances to their suffering families back in Haiti.”
Haiti now joins El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Sudan and Somalia on the list of countries whose citizens have temporary protected status in the U.S. The homeland security secretary is authorized to declare such a status for immigrants whose countries face natural disasters — of which Haiti has had several in recent years. Floods in 2004 left more than 500 people dead or missing, and four big storms in 2008 killed at least 800.