New York, NY —
On Saturday, the entire first floor of CUNY’s Medgar Ever College, in Central Brooklyn, was transformed into a free legal clinic to help Haitians in New York apply for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS.
The clinic was set up by a group of organizations including the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs after President Obama’s announcement that all eligible Haitian nationals living illegally in the U.S. would be granted temporary protected status for 18 months.
In the hallway, blue, red and tricolor-capped individuals walked back and forth, in a continuous movement that looked like an unorganized choreography. All of them were volunteers, here to assist Haitians in their application process: blue for the regulars, red for the Creole speakers, and red, blue and white for the administrative staff.
The event attracted a little over 300 volunteers, outweighing the number of Haitians who came for assistance. By 1 p.m., 200 Haitians had showed up, and organizers of the event said they were expecting 450 to 500 Haitian nationals by the end of the day. They had prepared to receive up to 1,200 people.
In the hallway, and in the different rooms, volunteers tried to keep themselves busy. Some read the news on their cell phones; others wandered around, looking for somebody to help; many more just hung around in the packed volunteer room. “They don’t really need me,” complained Jesse Greene, a 27-years-old law student at Brooklyn Law, who explained that his task was to help Haitians find their way to the application assistance rooms. And he added, laughing: “Everybody is well directed except for the volunteers.”
For the Haitians who came, everything started at the end of the hallway, in a large auditorium with purple seats. “Can I get No. 151,” Monique Francis, one of the coordinators from CUNY, called from the stage. “Numéro cent cinquante-et-un,” immediately translated a Creole-speaking staffmember.
Seated in one of the first rows, Henry silently waited for his number, 278, to be called. Close to fifty years old, he said he had lived in New York for more than ten years, and had been waiting for that day the whole time. “It represents freedom,” he said. Still, on Saturday, his feelings were mixed. “It’s too bad that the others in Haiti are suffering and that here, it’s like a breeze of joy for all of us.”
Haitians were then directed to a screening room, where volunteers checked their eligibility, and eventually to one of the three classrooms where they received assistance filling out their application forms. In the middle of room 1021, a young woman answered questions about her family situation, while her 8-year-old son played with white-out. “Now, all your forms are done,” said Dan, an attorney turned volunteer for the day. “Do you know about the fees?”
“I have the money,” the woman replied, taking Western Union forms out of her purse. The application cost $50 for children under 14 and $470 for adults. Unlike her, several Haitians here on Saturday did not have the money.
People who couldn’t afford the fee could apply for a fee waiver, but Francis said their staff discouraged it. “We’re telling people, if you can’t afford it, find the money,” she said. “Otherwise, it is going to delay the application.” Standing by the entrance door, James, 32, looked disappointed. “I didn’t know about the fee,” he said in French. “For now, I don’t have a job, so I don’t have the money.”
Like him, many Haitians will first have to find the money to go through with their application. But on Saturday, that didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm. “It is a great opportunity,” said James. “I will find the money. I have a lot of friends.”