By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Activists on Wednesday urged U.S. authorities to extend a special immigration status for 50,000 refugees from earthquake-hit Haiti, fearing they may be thrown out of the United States.
The special status dates back to 2010, when an earthquake devastated Haiti, and it has been extended ever since.
Now activists fear this might end after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was advised that the poor nation no longer qualifies for emergency immigration protection.
DHS's Secretary John Kelly must decide by May 23 whether to prolong Haiti's Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which has been renewed every 18 months and is due to expire on July 22.
TPS beneficiaries can live and work in the United States.
Past extensions of TPS for Haiti have been based on the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that wrecked the economy of the Caribbean nation, the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and its current humanitarian conditions.
A DHS spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that Kelly had not yet made a decision.
But an internal memo published by the Miami Herald showed that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of DHS, last month recommended an end to Haiti's TPS designation.
The move has been decried by several immigration advocacy groups and Haitian diaspora associations that have scrambled for support from elected officials and religious leaders.
More than 400 faith leaders and organisations last week delivered a letter to Kelly, urging him to extend the temporary protection for Haitians affected by the earthquake.
At the New York-based Church World Service, one of the two groups behind the missive, spokeswoman Meredith Owen said Haiti faced the same conditions that earned it the original TPS.
Hurricane Matthew, which slammed into Haiti last October and left some 1.4 million people in need of assistance, had only compounded existing problems of reconstruction and resurrected a deadly cholera outbreak, she said.
"Allowing TPS to expire before Haiti has had a chance to recover violates our obligation that we set for ourselves and that we pledged to Haiti," said Owen in a phone interview.
A Boston-based activist group, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), said it had been successful in lobbying lawmakers for their support.
So far, the group had prompted some 90 members of Congress to publicly voice their support for the preservation of Haiti's status, said Steve Forester, a spokesman for IJDH.
"If there was ever a classic textbook case for TPS, it is Haiti," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"Not granting TPS would increase despair, the destabilising (of Haiti) and be contrary to the national security of the United States."
Last week, Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse told Haitian media he too backed the renewal of the TPS for his country.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)