WASHINGTON (AP) — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano temporarily halted deportations Wednesday of some Haitians illegally in the U.S. in response to the Caribbean nation’s devastating earthquake.
Those with deportation orders will be allowed to remain in the U.S. Those held in detention centers will remain jailed, Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said.
The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti Tuesday is believed to have left thousands dead. Corpses were piled in the streets near flattened buildings as the world relief response got under way.
The impact of Napolitano’s decision should be limited, because the Obama administration quietly stopped deporting Haitians without criminal records last March, said Florida Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.
In 2009, 221 noncriminal Haitians were deported to Haiti, down from 1,226 the previous year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics. Deportations of Haitians with criminal records totaled 466 last year, compared to 428 in 2008.
About 30,000 Haitians have orders to leave the U.S. and about 160 are in detention, according to the Homeland Security Department.
The federal government has suspended deportations following previous disasters. Deportation flights to Haiti were suspended in September 2008 because of hurricane damage in the country. The flights later resumed.
Several members of Congress who represent Haitian communities have been pressuring the Obama administration to give temporary protected status, or TPS, to Haitians illegally in the U.S.
The designation would allow Haitians to remain and work legally in the U.S. The latest disaster gave new urgency to the lawmakers’ demand.
Meek said he supports temporary protected status for Haitians, but search and rescue and security should take priority.
“I’m pretty sure the White House will officially grant TPS in coming weeks or days,” Meek said.
Chandler, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, said temporary protected status is an option that DHS considers in a disaster, “but our focus remains on saving lives.”
On a conference call with grassroots leaders and business officials, White House political director Patrick Gaspard told the listeners “the conversation around TPS is one that informs our thinking” on the U.S. earthquake response.
Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.