Hub office a 1-stop resource for information on Haiti relief

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / February 11, 2010

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Government officials will formally open a Haiti relief information center in Boston today to answer questions about immigration, adoption, counseling, and other services for people affected by the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.

The temporary center, on the first floor of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, has been running unofficially since last week to provide reliable assistance amid rumors that unscrupulous lawyers or others were charging immigrants exorbitant fees to fill out simple forms to apply for legal residency in this country.

But because there are a wide range of concerns beyond immigration, US Citizenship and Immigration Services broadened the center to include state and city officials and nonprofits. Now it is a one-stop shop to obtain information about how to bring relatives to the United States and apply for legal residency, as well as how to get a Social Security number and apply for state health insurance. Government officials will not provide free legal advice, but they will have lists of free legal clinics.

“We just want people to know that we’re here,’’ said Denis Riordan, district director for Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is housed in the federal building and is coordinating the effort. “We want to say you don’t need to go to people who are preying on the suffering of the Haitian people.’’

The center is a modest effort - an information table staffed by officials. But Riordan said it will provide help for at least 30 days, from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, to provide information. When officials opened last week, 150 people a day arrived seeking information. Now an average of 70 people show up daily.

Massachusetts is home to the third-largest Haitian community in the United States, and many are scrambling to aid family members and friends back home.

Many are seeking to apply for temporary protected status, a special emergency designation by the federal government that will allow an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Haitians who were here illegally or were just visiting before the quake to stay for 18 months. The fees to apply range from $50 for a child under 14 to $470 for an adult seeking temporary residency and permission to work. Fee waivers are available.

Riordan said the center will provide applications in English and Haitian Creole.

The federal agency will also answer questions about other immigration issues, though he cautioned that officials will be able to provide only basic guidance. For detailed information about individual cases, he said, immigrants will have to ask officials to review their file.

However, federal officials are expediting immigration and citizenship applications and accepting alternate documents in case vital records were destroyed in Haiti.

Richard Chacón, executive director of the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants, said his staff is providing information about state programs and services that immigrants who qualify for temporary protected status may now be eligible for, such as counseling and health care. In addition, he said, immigrants who obtain protected status are now eligible for driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition.

In addition to the center, federal, city, and state officials will continue to reach out to community groups, clergy, Haitian media and other groups to provide information.

Chacón has held regular Saturday conference calls with Haitian clergy so that they can disseminate information at Sunday services.

The Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, director of the mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, and other agencies are hosting a panel discussion at 4:30 p.m. today to dispel rumors about temporary protected status and other immigration issues.

The event, in which Riordan and Chacón will speak, along with an immigration lawyer and a representative from the Haitian Consulate, will be held at the Haitian Multi-Service Center at 185 Columbia Road in Dorchester.

“There are a lot of rumors,’’ Tan said. “People have so many immigration questions, we wanted to make sure that people get the answers that they need.’’