Federal immigration officials are expecting up to 200,000 undocumented Haitian immigrants, including nearly 68,000 in South Florida, to apply for a new federal immigration program that would allow the migrants to legally remain and work in the United States for 18 months.
The estimated number of potential applicants for Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is far larger than earlier predictions of about 30,000 Haitians nationwide, according to local immigrant organizations and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials.
The higher figures emerged Wednesday during a briefing with reporters by USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas. He was in Miami to meet with several South Florida immigrant aid organizations involved in assisting undocumented Haitian immigrants applying for TPS.
His visit comes on the heels of the Obama administration's announcement last week to grant TPS to undocumented Haitian immigrants who were in the United States on or before Jan. 12 -- the day the earthquake struck Haiti. Those who arrive after the Jan. 12 deadline will be repatriated to Haiti.
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TPS is an immigration benefit reserved for selected undocumented migrants from countries disrupted by natural disasters, armed conflicts or other emergencies.
In the spirit of ``generosity,'' said Mayorkas, the Obama administration is likely to waive the application fees for Haitian immigrants on a case-by-case basis. But he would not commit to waiving fees to all applicants.
Immigrant aid groups have been pressing USCIS to waive the fee, which runs to nearly $500.
He also said the USCIS staff will ``fast-track'' TPS applications with the goal of delivering work permits within 90 days. Typically, work permits for other TPS applicants can take up to six months.
Administration officials approved TPS as part of its effort to help Haiti recover from last week's devastating earthquake that has left an estimated 200,00 people dead and about 1.5 million homeless.
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.