A Time for Protection - HLS Helps Haitian Immigrants Gain Protected Status

On February 4, over 70 students gathered in Harvard Law’s Ames Courtroom for a training on helping Haitian immigrants apply for “temporary protected status” or “TPS”, a new protection that keeps Haitians in the United States from having to return to their devastated country.  The training was sponsored by the Office of Clinical/Pro-Bono Programs and Harvard’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program (HIRC), who has worked for over 20 years with the Haitian diaspora in Boston on immigration matters.  Some of the students who attended the training were current and former clinical students, but this effort also tapped new interest and an eager student body who wanted to respond to the crisis. 

The Obama administration and the Department of Homeland Security announced on January 21, 2010 that TPS had been granted to Haitians living in the United States prior to the fateful earthquake on January 12.  In order to qualify for this immigration status, a detailed application must be completed and sent to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service prior to the deadline of July 25, 2010.  Around the country, legal services organizations have mobilized alongside relief organizations and Haitian communities.  “It was great to be able to help a population that has suffered so much not only in Haiti, but also under prior American immigration policies,” said Leigh Ann Webster ’10.  “It's affirming to see the immigration system change its position to accommodate the needs of Haitians.” 

John Willshire-Carrera and Nancy Kelly, co-managing attorneys of GBLS’ Immigration Unit and clinical instructors for HIRC, along with Jerry Tisme, who coordinates GBLS’ efforts on TPS, put on a thorough presentation for students about the immigration law surrounding this form of relief.  The training detailed how students would work alongside attorneys doing direct service in legal clinics around Boston to help Haitians with applications.

Boston has the third largest Haitian community in the United States, and it is estimated that over 30,000 Haitians are eligible to file for TPS in the Boston area.  Many believe much of the work left to be done will come towards the deadline for applications in July.  Students have continued to express their interest in helping with applications going forward.

Although TPS seems simple to apply for, the application is actually quite nuanced, and there are a number of complex criteria apply.  Language proved to be a barrier in some cases, but for others communication was not an issue.  “A number of the students spoke French and were able to really connect with the clients,” said Willshire-Carrera.  Lack of documents and lack of money for filing fees were the most common impediments to completing applications at the clinics.

In order to accommodate more students, the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs coordinated with the Haitian Coalition of Somerville, the Community Action Agency of Somerville, and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to provide trainings for volunteers and hold legal clinics in Somerville and Cambridge.  Jacques Dessin, Esq., a Haitian-American immigration attorney provided a training at HLS on February 20 and via online webinars.  “It was a unique opportunity to have so many willing law student, attorney, and lay volunteers collaborate to address a need,” said Lee Branson, Assistant Director of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs at HLS.  “We tried to reach as many volunteers and clients as possible without duplicating efforts in the Boston area.”

If you know someone who is a potential candidate for TPS in the Greater Boston area, please check Massachusetts Legal Services calendar at http://www.masslegalservices.org/event for dates of upcoming clinics around the Boston area.  “We need to reach out,” said Willshire-Carrera.  “This is an issue for all of us.”

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