The Obama administration is preparing to handle applications from as many as 200,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants who want to live and work legally in the United States under a new immigration program unveiled last week in the aftermath of Haiti's destructive earthquake.
The federal government will begin accepting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) applications on Thursday, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas, whose agency will process the paperwork.
Mayorkas was in Miami Wednesday to meet with local immigrant aid groups to South Florida to talk about the daunting task of handling the likely blizzard of applications from Haitians seeking the opportunity to remain in the United States.
Administration officials approved TPS for Haitians last week as part of an effort to help Haiti recover from the earthquake that left an estimated 200,000 people dead and about 1.5 million homeless.
The TPS designation is reserved for selected undocumented migrants from countries disrupted by natural disasters, armed conflicts or other emergencies.
Those Haitians approved will be allowed to stay in the United States for 18 months and be issued work permits to find jobs.
To be approved, Haitian immigrants must submit proof of Haitian citizenship and must show they were in the United States before Jan. 12 — the day the devastating earthquake struck Haiti.
Local immigrant advocacy groups say that between 34,000 and 68,000 potential TPS applicants may be in South Florida and almost 100,000 statewide. They had earlier pegged the number of Haitians eligible for TPS at 30,000 nationwide.
USCIS officials said they are increasing staffs at various offices and service centers where applications are processed to expedite decisions.
The goal is to fast-track work permits for applicants, delivering them within 90 days or sooner, said USCIS' Mayorkas. TPS applicants typically wait six months.
``All applications will be treated as urgent,'' he said.
Authorization to work is a key priority for the majority of undocumented Haitians, particularly now that they are desperate to send money to relatives affected by last week's earthquake.
USCIS will try to waive the hefty application fees — almost $500 — to as many applicants as possible, said Mayorkas. But he would not commit to waiving fees for all applicants.
``We are aware that some people are financially vulnerable and we will be reviewing the applications with a generosity of spirit,'' Mayorkas told reporters.
Some aid group members pressed Mayorkas to also waive the requirement for government-issued identification for applicants.
USCIS officials at the meeting said they will consider accepting Haitian IDs after a Miami Haitian consulate official — commercial attaché Karlo Pelissier — said at the meeting that his office can issue ID papers for the applicants.
The consulate generally charges $30 for an ID, but Pelissier said he will check with his government on whether the fee can be waived.
By obtaining work permits with the possibility of getting a job, tens of thousands of undocumented Haitian immigrants in the United States are likely to send tens of millions of dollars to homeland relatives.
The latest estimate shows that Haitian immigrants in the United States send more than $1 billion in remittances to Haiti, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, which closely tracks remittances to the region.
The money sent from Haitians living in the United States and other foreign countries represents more than one-third of Haiti's gross national product.