It’s been more than a decade since an earthquake devastated Haiti, killing more than 200,000 people, and leaving so many more thousands homeless. To this day, the Caribbean country continues to recover, all while facing other ongoing challenges such as limited access to health care, as well as poverty, political instability and violence.
While a lot of political talk in Washington is focused on what’s happening at the U.S-Mexico border, Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages has joined immigration law professionals to share details of an expanded program under the Biden administration intended to provide legal pathways to America for migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela as well as war-torn Ukraine.
“This is a positive development, and a humanitarian way to allow people to seek asylum,” Solages said. “We have witnessed so many people risking their lives in order to make it here in the United States.”
This new policy allows up to 30,000 individuals from these four countries to come to the United States per month for a period of up to two years — all receiving work authorization. These individuals must have an eligible sponsor, and pass a series of vetting and background checks.
To reduce overcrowding and wait times at U.S. ports of entry, those who are legal immigrants or citizens of the United States can apply for someone in Haiti to come to America through an online application called the I-134A form, which gives that sponsor a chance to provide a declaration of financial support.
“They are basically asking you how are you going to take care of this person you are legally sponsoring, the person who is now called the beneficiary,” said Marie Pereira, founder of the Haiti Immigration Project. “Do you have the financial resources to take care of this person’s needs, from health to housing to clothing? Everything.”
Once the sponsor is approved, the beneficiary is required to submit their fingerprints and undergo an extensive background check. They also must be vaccinated for Covid-19, have a valid passport, and proof they are a Haiti native, Pereira added.
Those younger than 18 have to be accompanied by an adult who is their parent or legal guardian.
Judith Hospedales, an immigration law expert and formerly of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said with the influx of displaced migrants in various states, the administration is trying to cut back on the issues migrants face when they arrive to the border.
Many migrants are seeking asylum — meaning they fear for their safety, or they believe they could be harmed if they stay in their home country — and want protection from another nation, like the United States.
But there are many who may not qualify for asylum status. In that case, they can apply for temporary protection status, more commonly known as TPS. This status is for certain individuals who cannot return to their countries of origin because of circumstances within the country, such as those same countries not having the resources or capacity to take back their citizens at that particular time.
Emmanuel Depas, immigration attorney, founder and first president of the Haitian American Lawyers Association in New York, said prospective sponsors must take this process very seriously. Solages emphasized the importance of working with professionals like Depas when going through the sponsorship process.
“You have to say ‘yes’ with caution and understand what you’re getting into,” Depas said. “In those two years, you’re going to have to support (beneficiaries) financially, socially and help them get them acclimated to U.S. culture.
“I implore you to develop patience throughout this process.”
The Haitian American population is one of the fastest growing demographics in Nassau County, Solages said, with many living in communities like Elmont, Freeport, Uniondale, Valley Stream and Hempstead. According to the most recent census numbers, the total Haitian population was just over 850,000 nationwide, with nearly 155,000 living in New York alone.
Haiti itself has a little more than 11 million people.
Elsie Smith has lived in the United States for 52 years, spending the last decade in Elmont. She wants to sponsor six family members who now live in Haiti — a widower father, his sister and his four kids, whose mother passed away five years ago. The children had to stop going to school last September.
Smith is grateful for the humanitarian relief program as it will give these children better opportunities in the United States.
“This is something for a country that is suffering too much, and we have so much we can offer in this country,” Smith said, through tears. “I live in a house with six bedrooms all by myself — I will provide, (the father) can get his papers for work, and the four children can go to school.”