Trained attorneys across the city are staffing free clinics to help Haitians take advantage of a new opportunity to get legal working papers. The Obama administration granted Haitians Temporary Protected Status following the earthquake. It will allow them to work legally in the U.S. and, possibly, send money to their families in Haiti. WNYC’s Marianne McCune followed one woman as she put together her application.
"My name is Ruth," she says.
Ruth is from Haiti, and she’s filling out her application for Temporary Protected Status at the Brooklyn offices of the Legal Aid Society.
"It’s very important for me to be able to work and contribute in the community," she says. "I really appreciate everyone that help. And I take the time to thank everyone that help."
For a moment, she has to catch her breath. One tear rolls down her cheek. And then they get back to work.
"So this is your check off list, you’re going to need $470," a Legal Aid staffer tells Ruth.
Ruth stands at the end of a long line for free groceries provided by a local church
Legal Aid staff advised Ruth to play it safe and not give WNYC her last name. She’s been in the U.S. illegally for a decade. She lives alone with her son, who is also here illegally -– and has no job, and no right to most government services. So the announcement that the United States might give her legal working papers seemed almost too good to be true.
"I couldn’t sleep when I heard the news," Ruth says. "I was searching for the information."
How would she complete all the paperwork? How would she pay for the application, which costs $470 per person? Some neighborhood immigration consultants were charging an additional $500 just to guide her through the process.
"As long as they can read, they just say they do immigration services," Ruth says.
Immigrant advocates are advising Haitians to be careful -– there’s no guarantee people who advertise their expertise are actually qualified. Here at Legal Aid, they plan to hold two or three free clinics a week for the full six-month window during which people can apply. And the process can be complicated. As Haitians arrive, Jojo Annobel has his staff check first to see if they should apply. Any felony convictions and certain misdemeanors make them ineligible.
"If you jump a turnstile, that’s a misdemeanor," Annobel says. "It’s called a crime involving moral turpitude. If you have only one, you can get an exception and you can apply. But if you have two, then you’ll be out of luck because you have two misdemeanors."
Even for people who are definitely eligible, the application is not simple.
"In a lot of instances they’re unable to get certain documentation in order to fulfill requirements for the forms," says Chrishina Barrett, a paralegal. Barrett is helping Ruth get her papers together. She has no evidence of her son’s birth in Haiti.
"Unfortunately we don’t know where the passport is, the birth certificate," Ruth says.
"Due to the fact that Haitians cannot retrieve those documents at this time, she may have to get secondary information, such as affidavits from family members," Barrett explains.
And if she wants the federal government to waive the fees for her and her son’s application, Ruth needs proof that she’s poor. Maybe an affidavit from the pastor who lets them live for free above his church.
"If we have the pastor from the church indicating that you live upstairs that he supports the family, then you save $470 times two," Barrett says.
"Oh, ok," Ruth replies.
Ruth helps out at a storefront church in St. Albans, Queens in exchange for living in a cluttered two-room apartment above it.
"You can see the place is...this is it!" Ruth says, upstairs.
In the kitchen, there’s an odd assortment of groceries she’s been given –- a big bowl of oranges, a bag of chips. And her son is using an old PC she says someone put out on the street. Rutherford is in his last year of high school and he gets ok grades -– C’s and up. He says growing up without legal papers made studying hard seem futile.
"It kind of made me slack a little whenever I thought about it," he says. "If your possibilities are limited, you just don’t see the purpose in it."
Rutherford says he thought college was an impossibility because there’s no way they can pay regular tuition even at a state or city school. And while his friends were applying for financial aid, he knew kids without legal papers are mostly ineligible. So when his mom told him last week they could get Temporary Protected Status "I was ecstatic," he says. "And we went on the computer and started looking through it –- and I had a big grin on my face. That was it."
"That’s going to be definitively an open door. Yeah," Ruth says.
Rutherford already picked up his transcript from school. That will show immigration officials that he’s been in the country since well before the earthquake in Haiti struck, another eligibility requirement.
Ruth heads outside into the cold to wait in line for free food from another storefront church, across the street from hers.
"The line is long," Ruth says. "I also forgot my book." She’s reading a book about nutrition. "When you eat at the food bank, sometimes you eat too much of the salt and stuff," she says. "You need to watch!"
Temporary Protected Status won’t make Ruth eligible for food stamps or Section 8 housing. But she says she hopes not to need that kind of help.
"So I’ll be able to work, and that will make me feel great about myself," she says.
Ruth says she wants to become a nurse. She’ll go back to Legal Aid next week to finalize the application. If all goes well, she’ll get a notice of receipt within 30 days, and a work permit within 90.
For a list of organizations that provide assistance with the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visit the sites linked here.
There is more of WNYC's coverage of Haiti here.