By Ted Hesson and Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States will expand Haitian eligibility for a humanitarian program that grants deportation relief and work permits to immigrants who cannot safely return to their home countries, the Department of Homeland Security said on Saturday.
A new designation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) will cover an estimated 150,000 Haitians already living in the United States, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said in a statement praising the decision.
"After careful consideration, we determined that we must do what we can to support Haitian nationals in the United States until conditions in Haiti improve so they may safely return home," DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement, citing security concerns, increased human rights abuses, "crippling poverty and lack of basic resources."
Democrats, a few Republicans and pro-immigrant advocates had pressed President Joe Biden administration's to make more Haitians who are in the country illegally eligible for deportation relief. Republican former President Donald Trump had sought to end most TPS enrollment, including that of Haitians, but was stymied by federal courts.
The program allows people already in the United States to stay and work legally if their home countries have been affected by natural disasters, armed conflicts or other events that prevent their safe return. The designations last six to 18 months and can be renewed.
Haitians were granted the protected status following a devastating 2010 earthquake in the Caribbean island nation. The program currently covers about 54,000 Haitians residing in the United States since January 2011, a DHS spokeswoman said.
The new move would extend the program for 18 months for those already in it and expand eligibility to Haitians in the United States as of May 21. That would make roughly 100,000 more people eligible, the spokeswoman said.
Mayorkas stressed that Haitians who arrive in the United States after May 21 will not be eligible and could be deported.
Menendez applauded the move, saying in a statement that it "will avoid destabilizing the island’s fragile recovery efforts."
The Biden administration opened the TPS program to an estimated 320,000 Venezuelans https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-usa/biden-grants-temporary-protected-status-to-venezuelans-in-u-s-who-fled-countrys-turmoil-idUSKBN2B02H9 living in the United States in March and for several thousand Syrians https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-biden-immigration-syria-int/biden-renews-deportation-relief-for-syrians-in-the-united-states-idUSKBN29Y28W in January.
Roughly half of the Haitian and Venezuelan immigrants in the United States live in Florida, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
In the coming months, the Biden administration will also face decisions over whether to renew or expand TPS eligibility for immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and five other countries covered by the program.
(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Andrea Shalal in Washington; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Leslie Adler)