Haiti Crumbles, CUNY Helps, Rebuilding To Come

Law student Amy Eisen helps Gerald Desiral prepare TPS application forms at a CUNY-sponsored assistance event for Haitians.

When the Obama administration announced it would grant Temporary Protective Status for 18 months to undocumented Haitians who were in the U.S. when the earthquake devastated the country, CUNY's Citizenship Now! was ready to spring into action.

In fact, Citizenship Now! had anticipated Washington's move just after the Jan. 12 quake, and had already begun to gear up to help Haitians apply for TPS, said Citizenship Now! director and Baruch professor Allan Wernick, who founded the project 13 years ago to provide free citizenship and immigration law services to CUNY students, staff and other New Yorkers. Just a week after the quake, a Webinar was held to train hundreds of volunteers to help Haitians fill out the federal forms at three, full-day CUNY-sponsored assistance events in January and February.

Some 800 Haitians were helped at the three events - two in Brooklyn, one in Queens - co-sponsored by the Mayor's office and overseen by Wernick. Of those people, 500 of varying ages and education levels, including undocumented immigrants and some on student visas, left with TPS applications completed with the aid of several hundred volunteers - attorneys, CUNY students, community residents and others, Wernick said. As of mid-March, 100 additional TPS applications were being processed at CUNY's on-campus Immigration Law Centers, with more to come: A fourth, day-long assistance session is planned for June 26 in anticipation of the July 20 application deadline.

"It was very exciting," said Wernick of the help sessions, which were also co-sponsored by local elected officials and the Legal Aid Society. "There was just such a high spirit of contribution and assistance and help and doing something for people," Wernick said, noting that filing fees were waived for those unable to pay, and free photos provided. "People were helping, giving money, time and knowledge."

"I attended all three TPS Assistance events held at Medgar Evers College, York College, and a public school in Brooklyn," said Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor for university relations and secretary of the Board of Trustees. "We met many hundreds of Haitian immigrants pursuing employment-related credentials and who were subsequently helped by the most dedicated of volunteers. They left knowing that CUNY is very much a university of the people - all of the people."

International students are eligible for TPS and should check with their college's International Student Advisor for details. TPS can benefit F-1 students with work authorization and a reduction in their course load. Students are still required to enter the U.S. with valid documents including the F-1 visa. Each CUNY campus has various types of assistance for Haitian students and Haiti relief efforts, including financial, counseling, fundraising, and visa and immigration support.

The University is uniquely qualified to help. Citizenship Now! - whose volunteers staff an annual weeklong call-in, co-sponsored by the Daily News, to dispense immigration advice to New Yorkers - is perhaps the largest immigration - aid organization in the city now, Wernick noted. "There's no institution in the city that has helped more Haitians," he said. One reason it could mobilize quickly in response to the quake was its database of 1,500 volunteers, including Creole speakers.

Those interested in volunteering to staff this year's Citizenship Now! call-in, to be held April 26-30, can attend a training session April 8. Details are available at http://www.cuny.edu/about/resources/citizenship/news-events/callinanouncement.html .

With some 6,000 students of Haitian descent studying at CUNY, the earthquake - which killed an estimated 200,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless - struck close to home. New York City's Haitian community is America's largest.

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein quickly designated Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Peter Jordan "to lead a University-wide effort to encourage contributions to assist the Haitian people through relief agencies designated by the city or state of New York."

Food, clothing, medicine and other supplies - as well as financial contributions –- were collected at CUNY campuses for survivors in Haiti. The University was also exploring an initiative to give students from Haiti a chance to continue their education at CUNY community colleges, with a focus on knowledge and skills that can help rebuild the country.

"Rebuilding is an enormous task," Chancellor Goldstein said in announcing a task force of six community college presidents, led by Kingsborough President Regina Peruggi, to develop the initiative. "What I asked them to do," Goldstein told the CUNY Board of Trustees, "was imagine a program that could be scaled up beyond CUNY, but that CUNY would take the lead. . . . to look at what the needs are today and in the immediate future to help rebuild this important country."

The more recent 8.8 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile on Feb. 27, though stronger than the 7.0 Haiti quake, reportedly caused less destruction. CUNY and New York are home to fewer Chileans than Haitians but the Chancellor expressed solidarity "with all Chileans everywhere" and set up a process to coordinate assistance requests. A "Time of Reflection, Remembrance and Restoration" embracing both disasters was held at CUNY's Central Office in March.

Port-au-Prince native Régine Latortue, a professor of comparative black literature and Haitian studies at Brooklyn College, has been advising the college's Office of Student Affairs and Haitian-American Student Association in an effort to raise funds and other support for Haiti.

"It's going to be very hard, but we're strong and resilient people," she said.

Mark Schuller, a York College assistant professor of African-American Studies and anthropology who co-directed and co-produced the 2009 documentary "Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy," returned to Haiti eight days after the quake, traveling with a medical team. In a recent lecture, he said he found the Haitian people traumatized but was "impressed, emboldened and inspired at how Haitians have managed to survive."

To find out more about University relief efforts, go to www.cuny.edu/helpforhaiti