MIAMI – Immigration advocates and Haitian community leaders on Friday criticized a White House decision to grant stays of deportation to a narrow group of Haitians as “watered down relief” that fell far short of the protected immigration status they are seeking.

At the heart of their discontent was a letter dated Oct. 29 that landed on the desk of Miami Archbishop John Clement Favalora and was only released to reporters Friday afternoon. The letter came in response to an earlier letter by the archbishop to the president, Favalora’s office said.

The White House correspondence also said the government was considering temporary protected status for Haitians – a much wider designation that allows foreign nationals already residing in the United States to stay here and obtain work permits.

Miami-based Haitians, Florida lawmakers, civil leaders and even Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue have thrown their weight behind a campaign requesting the status to Haitians. They accelerated their efforts after Tropical Storm Jeanne hit the northwestern quadrant of Haiti and killed more than 2,000 people.

To qualify for the protected immigration status, a country must show it is gripped by ongoing armed conflict or by environmental disaster.

“This is a meaningless gesture. There is no provision in the law to do what they’re doing,” said Ira Kurzban, a prominent immigration lawyer and the legal counsel for former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, referring to the sketchily outline deportation stays. Like other immigration lawyers, he said it was unclear what evidence was needed to support an application for a stay and how long the window would be open.

Jean Robert LaFortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, referred to the limited suspension of deportations as “watered down” and “arbitrary” relief, and he encouraged the administration to review its decision and grant work permits to Haitians already living in the United States instead.

With permits, he said, they could at least send remittances home to help rebuild their hobbled country. Immigrant advocates estimated some 20,000 Haitians might benefit from temporary protective status, while roughly 1,000 might benefit from the deportation stays.

Meanwhile, speaking during a trip to Miami, Latortue said the protected status request was “under study” by the U.S. government, but that no determination had been made, despite local reports saying the Department of Homeland Security had decided to reject the request for now.

“We are Haiti and we would like the right for all Haitian citizens to return to the country. We will accept them, but for the time being, give us a break,” he added, during a meeting with the Haitian Advisory Board at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla.

Eight countries currently enjoy the special immigration status, including Nicaragua and El Salvador, listed after Hurricane Mich.

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