After arrival full of hope, many Haitians despair in US

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By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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BROCKTON — The young schoolteacher fled Haiti after the powerful earthquake, the day she spent four terrifying hours pinned under a car and a pile of rubble. In Massachusetts, she found medical care to heal her grotesquely swollen leg, counseling to quiet her nightmares, and hopeful messages from the US government that it would help her start over.

But today, the one year anniversary of the quake, she is homeless, with no documentation to work or drive, and living in a Brockton shelter with her husband and two daughters, aged 3 and 2 months. She is among a flood of Haitians silently adrift across the United States. Many fled the horrific disaster, using visitor visas to enter the United States and stay with friends or relatives, hoping to stay, at least temporarily, to work and rebuild.

In April, a top federal immigration official said Haitians who fled the earthquake could apply for deferred action, a rarely used immigration benefit that could allow them to stay and work for a fixed amount of time. But hundreds of applications are still unresolved nationwide, and advocates say that many Haitians are still unaware that the option exists.

Because they are not permitted to work, many are becoming burdens on their families or finding themselves homeless, according to Catholic Charities and other advocates. In Massachusetts, some are reluctant wards of the state, which pays for food stamps, apartment shelters, or hotel rooms for destitute families.

“I just want to have legal status. I need to start over,’’ said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she has applied for deferred action and fears deportation. She spoke in a single room in the Westgate Hotel in Brockton, where her family lived for nearly two months before being moved yesterday to an emergency family shelter.

A spokesman for the immigration official, Alejandro Mayorkas, director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, declined requests for an interview for this story. Matthew Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration agency, said federal officials are reviewing their policies regarding Haitians who fled the earthquake.

Many Haitians had hoped for another designation that would allow them to work, called temporary protected status. But the Obama administration did not extend that option to Haitians fleeing the quake’s devastation, partly to discourage a life-threatening mass migration by sea. Some advocates have pressed the government to give Haitians who fled the earthquake temporary protected status, as they did for Hondurans and Salvadorans who came to the United States after disasters in their countries.

It is unclear how many Haitians who fled the quake remain in limbo, but Catholic Charities officials said they know of at least 330 people in Boston and Brockton. The organization’s Miami offices estimated their numbers in the thousands nationwide.

The unresolved cases are concentrated in Massachusetts, home to the third-largest Haitian and Haitian-American population in the country, behind Florida and New York.

Though Haitians could apply for deferred action, US Citizenship and Immigration Services has done little to promote it. According to the latest figures, only 150 Haitian immigrants nationwide have received deferred action, or 19 percent of the 785 who have requested it. In Boston, the approval rate was higher, at nearly 60 percent, but only 89 people applied for it.

Mona Pompilus, a tall and elegant 36-year-old whose visa is about to expire, said she feels paralyzed, afraid to apply for deferred action because so few have been approved. Yet, she says she cannot take her 8-year-old son back to her collapsed house in Haiti, nor continue to rely on money from relatives and the kindness of an elderly friend who let her stay in his studio apartment. She and her son sleep on a twin bed in a walk-in closet.

She says she is desperate to get back to work.

“Sometimes when I wake up I say, oh my god, this is a new day to do nothing,’’ she said. “It’s really tough.’’

The most serious cases are landing in motels across the state, with more than a dozen in Brockton, but reports of homelessness are also popping up in Malden and the Woburn area, said Richard Chacón, executive director of the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants, which is holding a legal clinic Friday to aid Haitians in Brockton.

“It’s just sad to me to see,’’ said Marjean Perhot, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Boston, which has aided Haitians with legal clinics, English classes, and other services. “I just feel like they’re in a state of purgatory. It’s heartbreaking.’’

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that favors tougher restrictions on immigration, said the Haitians should return to their homeland, because the visas were supposed to be for temporary travel. He pointed out that other nations in dire straits, such as Congo, do not receive special treatment.

On Friday night, families gathered for an interview at the Westgate Hotel, which is tucked off a dark, lonely road behind a shopping mall. Bundled in hats and scarves against the unfamiliar cold, they said a year after the earthquake that they have nothing to return to in Haiti. Their houses collapsed, their work is gone, and they believe they could start over here.

Many were professionals in Haiti — an accountant, a hospital laboratory technician, a judge. They had houses, cars, and household help.

They say they are deeply grateful for the help from nonprofits and the state, but they are also desperate to work, unaccustomed to relying on donations from others. Those who are eligible for food stamps said they feed their children microwaved macaroni and cheese; others rely on donations from friends. Children play soccer in the narrow hotel hallways while parents learn English and wait.

“You feel depressed,’’ said Ricardo, a 32-year-old former auto parts manager at an auto dealership who now lives with his wife and two boys in the Westgate Hotel, as they try to figure out what to do next. He declined to use his last name, for fear of deportation. “It’s not a life.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at