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School of Law students help Haitian immigrants apply for temporary protected status

Law student Nichole Geiger, left, and law school alumna Shirley St. Louis, a Haitian-American who speaks fluent Creole, assist one of the many Haitian nationals who showed up at Jackson Towers to file for Temporary Protected Status.

Clutching a large manila folder bulging with legal documents, Jimmy Fleurissaint sat in one of the chairs lining the wall of a small medical clinic and looked straight ahead, his face clouded with concern.

Fleurissaint, who arrived in Miami two years ago on a rickety boat from Haiti, said he couldn’t stop thinking about the wife and five children he left behind in Port-au-Prince. While his family survived the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that destroyed much of the capital city, “they have no place to live and not enough food to eat,” he said.

Securing a steady job would allow the 40-year-old Fleurissaint to earn enough money to help his loved ones back in Haiti.

The recent efforts of a group of University of Miami School of Law students may help him achieve his goal.

More than 60 of the students volunteered last Friday to help Haitian nationals apply for Temporary Protected Status, a government program that protects qualified immigrants from deportation and allows them to stay and work in the United States for 18 months.

The Obama administration granted the special immigration status to Haitian immigrants three days after the quake plunged their country into ruins, saying their safety would be at risk if they were deported. U.S. immigration officials anticipate as many as 200,000 Haitians—between 34,000 and 68,000 in South Florida alone—will apply. But to be eligible, they must have been in the U.S. on or before January 12, the day of the earthquake.

Law students Nema Daghbandan, left, and Ana Kauffmann assist a Haitian family with TPS last Friday, the second day Haitian immigrants could apply for the special status.

Haitian immigrants began applying last Thursday, pouring into community centers, churches, and other offices in Miami’s Little Haiti and elsewhere that served as filing locations. UM law students joined the effort to assist Haitian nationals the next day, setting up shop in the narrow corridors and small offices of an eighth-floor clinic inside Jackson Medical Towers on the Miller School campus.

“This project grew out of our students’ enormous outpouring of support and desire to help the Haitian community in the wake of the tragedy,” said JoNel Newman, associate professor and director of UM’s Health and Elder Law Clinic (HELC), which conducted the filing session. “As lawyers, none of us can administer field medicine, and we aren’t logistics experts. But this is a way we can help. It may not be as dramatic, but it’s equally important–and will have a lasting impact on Haitian families.”

Newman said the clients at Friday’s HELC event were Haitian immigrants in Miami who receive care at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. “We have a longstanding attorney-client and referral relationship with UM/JMH clinics, treatment providers, and patients, so holding this event seemed a natural for us,” she said.

Throughout the day, each of the 15 work stations set up by Newman’s clinic buzzed with activity as students, assisted by interpreters in many instances, worked in teams to begin the application process, screening and interviewing Haitians. Trained immigration lawyers reviewed applications to ensure accuracy.

JoNel Newman, left, who directs the Health and Elder Law Clinic, discusses the day's strategy for helping Haitian immigrants apply for TPS with clinic supervising attorneys Melissa Swain and Olga Porven and student Alison Flowers.

“We have the capacity to process up to 150 clients today,” Newman said, noting that temporary obstacles such as Haitians not having all the necessary documents could hold up the application process. “But we’re tracking every single case that we do to make sure it’s processed correctly.”

The students also helped their Haitian clients apply to have the $500 application fee waived. “Every dollar that doesn’t go to those fees can go to family and loved ones in Haiti,” Newman said.

When Newman and her staff of clinic lawyers and students arrived at Jackson Medical Towers at 8 a.m. Friday, there were already several Haitians standing in line. One of them was Fleurissaint, who woke at 6 a.m. to stand in line. He waited for an hour to file his application, thinking about his family in Haiti the entire time. “I try not to look at the television news too much,” he said through an interpreter. “The images coming out of Haiti are too painful.”

He wasn’t able to contact his wife and children by phone until four days after the quake. “They are safe, but afraid to sleep inside any buildings that are still standing out of fear of aftershocks,” he said. Getting a steady job so that he can send much-needed money back home is the first thing he intends to do if he is awarded protected status.

Sixty-six-year-old Marie Pierre, whose daughter and seven grandchildren live in Port-au-Prince, plans to do the same. “Their home was destroyed, so they need my help,” she said.

Students and professors from the School of Law’s Children and Youth and Immigration Law clinics also volunteered at the TPS filing event, assisting Newman’s group in processing the more than 60 applications that were filed.

Newman said the HELC is considering conducting more TPS filing sessions. If the clinic does, third-year Haitian-born law student Patricia Elizée, who volunteered at Friday’s event, said she’ll be there.

“I’m so proud to be a Miami Hurricane right now because UM was one of the first institutions to respond to this crisis,” said Elizée, 25, who was able to contact her father and brother in Port-au-Prince the day after the quake via Facebook.

Shirley St. Louis, who graduated from the UM law school last year and helped process some of the Haitians for TPS, said she would consider volunteering again as well. “What’s needed now is everyone pulling together to bring Haiti out of this crisis,” she said.

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