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Helping Haiti from afar

During the Health and Elder Law Clinic’s recent Alternative Spring Breaks, students from the UM School of Law and elsewhere helped Miami’s Haitian immigrant community apply for temporary protected status, an 18-month amnesty that may help improve conditions in crisis-hit Haiti.

In Little Haiti: UM law students, from left, Daniela Gordon, Fernando Wytrykusz, and Nneka Utti walk to a client’s home to follow up on her TPS application. Law students made house calls to follow up on some of the more challenging cases.

Twilight had fallen by the time the three University of Miami law school students set out on foot in Little Haiti, searching for the old woman who needed help with “Obama’s bill.”

Nneka Utti, a first-year law student of Haitian and Nigerian descent, had an idea where the woman lived but wasn’t completely sure.

“We have to do a lot of follow-up,” said the 23-year-old, as she and her two classmates passed a corner convenience store where a group of Haitian men had gathered outside, laughing and talking in their native Creole. “Some of the applications we’re processing have discrepancies, and those need to be cleared up before they can go through.”

Utti was talking about applying for temporary protected status, a special 18-month amnesty granted to foreign nationals who cannot safely return to their homelands because of temporary conditions such as ongoing armed conflict and natural disasters.

Within days of Haiti’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake, President Barack Obama extended the designation to undocumented Haitians already living in the U.S. prior to the January 12 catastrophe. The designation enables them to stay and work in the country legally, with the potential to earn better wages than they likely would without it.

But applying for the special status doesn’t always go off without a hitch. Haitian immigrants must have the necessary documents to prove they were here before the quake, seek legal assistance with filling out the complicated TPS application, and then come up with the $470 processing fee and any other affiliated costs.

Follow-up: While in a Little Haiti neighborhood, Nneka Utti, who wants to specialize in public interest law after she graduates from UM law school, helps a client clear up inconsistencies in her TPS application.JoNel Newman, associate professor and director of the UM School of Law’s Health and Elder Law Clinic, knew that many of the immigrants in Miami’s large Haitian community would need help. During a one-day intake in January on the Miller School of Medicine campus, she and her staff of supervising attorneys and student fellows processed some 65 TPS applications, with dozens of Haitians lining up early for the free assistance, which included application fee waivers.

Most recently, as part of the clinic’s Alternative Spring Break program, which concluded last Friday, students from law schools at UM, Stanford, the University of Memphis, and elsewhere spent their respective mid-semester recesses in Miami, being trained in the legal particulars of TPS and then fanning out into the local community to help Haitians apply.

For a couple of days each week during the alternative breaks, students used the dining room at Chef Nicole Restaurant in Little Haiti as their headquarters. The efforts drew the young and old, homeless and disabled—some of the cases a little more challenging to process than others.

For the more difficult ones, students hit the streets, visiting clients’ homes to tie up loose ends. Like the case of the old woman who asked not to be identified. “She calls TPS ‘Obama’s bill,’” Utti said, as she and fellow law students Daniela Gordon and Fernando Wytrykusz walked through Little Haiti looking for her residence.

When they finally located it, a one-story duplex with so little furniture inside it looked like it was abandoned, it took several knocks on the front door before she answered. At first, the woman refused to speak to the students but became more trusting once Utti explained in fluent Creole that they had come to correct inconsistencies in her application.

The woman’s initial reluctance was understandable, Utti explained, because some of Miami’s Haitian immigrants have lost hard-earned wages to fraudulent lawyers who befriended them under the guise of filing their TPS applications, only to later disappear, taking their money and leaving their immigration status in limbo.

That’s one of the reason’s Utti volunteered for the alternative spring breaks. “I see this as an opportunity to make sure people don’t become marginalized,” she said.

The old woman receives no benefits and has almost no relatives in Miami, save for a niece. She depends on neighbors and friends for financial support. Her heart-wrenching predicament is typical of many of the cases the students encountered.

During another follow-up at a client’s home in Little Haiti, second-year law student Sarah Tamburrino and two students from the New England School of Law had to leave the front door open to let in sunlight because the home’s electricity had been turned off.

But as precarious as their clients’ situations are here, it pales in comparison to what their families are going through in Haiti, where millions have been displaced and longstanding problems of poverty and unemployment worsened in the aftermath of the quake.

Family hardship in Haiti is one reason acquiring temporary protected status is so crucial for immigrants in the U.S. Money earned from jobs here can be sent back home, which would not only aid families but also boost the country’s economy.

That is what 40-year-old Jimmy Fleurissaint had in mind when he showed up to apply for TPS at the clinic’s first intake session in January, clutching a large envelope bulging with documents. Because of the quake, the wife and five children he left behind in Port-au-Prince when he came to Miami two years ago “have no place to live and not enough food to eat.” With a job, he would be able to send money home.

“We know now what we suspected before we started this effort: that TPS does help Haiti,” says clinic director Newman. “Lawyers can help Haiti. We can be first responders in a way.”

Taking into account the $470 it costs to file an application and the accompanying legal fees that can run just as much, supervising attorney Melissa Swain looks at each TPS case they handle as $1,000 that could be going to Haiti.

She admits, though, that many of the Haitians they have helped cannot send anything approaching that amount. Some were even too sick to make it to the spring break intakes. “In such cases, we completed the entire application process at their homes, even taking along portable copiers,” said Matthew Eandi, a second-year UM law student from Los Angeles who has been involved with the clinic’s TPS efforts from the start.

Almost 70 Haitians applied for TPS during the clinic’s first day of intake last January. The bulk of them were immigrants who receive health care at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, with whom the Health and Elder Law Clinic has a longstanding attorney-client relationship. But during the Alternative Spring Break program, students and staff attorneys did more outreach to attract applicants, going to strip malls and churches in Little Haiti to pass out flyers announcing the sessions.

“We did the whole 54th Street corridor [in Little Haiti],” Swain said. “If we saw people barbecuing in their yards, we’d stop and talk to them.”

Eventually news about the free assistance the clinic was offering started spreading more quickly, as Swain found out on her third visit to a Little Haiti restaurant, where a woman eagerly approached her asking about the date of their next intake session.

The woman’s zeal, though, belies the reality that the number of Haitians applying for TPS has fallen well short of projections. As of mid-March, of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 undocumented Haitians living in the U.S. before the earthquake, only about 35,000 had applied for TPS, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Newman blames the low numbers on a combination of factors, including the application fee, a lack of awareness, and fear of providing information the government doesn’t already have.

For its part, the Health and Elder Law Clinic has done all it can to get as many Haitians to apply before the July deadline to file. According to Swain, the clinic accounts for 10 percent of the 300 TPS applications nationwide that are approved for fee waivers.

As Utti completed her follow-up visit to the old woman’s home in Little Haiti, which concluded with a hug from the woman, she felt a sense of satisfaction but knew there was more work to do.

“This is something I felt compelled to do,” she said. “I’m sure that if I were in the same situation, someone would be doing the same for me.”

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