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Officials fearful of potential scammers

MANATEE — Estimates of the number of Haitians who live in Manatee and Sarasota counties vary widely, ranging from 1,500 to 15,000. Whatever the number, the Haitian population could increase over the next 18 months after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

Officials caution that with the U.S. government decision Thursday to allow Haitians legally or illegally in the U.S. to apply for temporary protected status due to the earthquake, some could be victimized once again by scammers.

“People come up to these immigrants and might say, ‘We will help you apply for temporary protected status,’ in return for a fee,” said Kathy Redman, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Tampa. “We want to get the word out that Haitians who want to apply should beware of these storefront operations which will pop up.”

The application fee for temporary protected status, known as TPS, costs $470, said Lucille Acken, the director of immigration for the Diocese of Venice.

“We can’t say how much the population of Haitians will increase in Bradenton and Sarasota due to the earthquake, but we know it will increase,” said Pastor Wilner Jean-Pierre of First Haitian Church of the Nazarene, 236 Ninth Ave. W., Bradenton.

Jean-Pierre pegged the population of Haitians in Bradenton, Palmetto and Sarasota at between 10,000 and 15,000.

Pastor Jean Woady Louis, who leads a Haitian worship service at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, said the Haitian population was 1,500 to 2,000 in Bradenton, Palmetto and Sarasota, with less than half going to church regularly.

The diocese estimates 80 percent of Haitians in Manatee and Sarasota are Catholic, with many other Christian denominations accounting for the other 20 percent.

As for the scammers, Haitian supporters are urging Haitians who wish to apply for temporary protection but are concerned about scammers to call the Employability Status Assistance Program, 281 Ringling Blvd, Suite 216E, Sarasota. The supervisor is attorney Jim Mills and the phone is (941) 952-9130.

The $473 application fee may be prohibitive for some low-income families, Acken said, perhaps driving them to the storefront operations.

But Haitians need to know that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has a fee waiver form that may be used to request “forgiveness” of the fees.

“It is not automatic,” Acken said. “The application for a waiver is reviewed and then granted or denied.”

Catholic Charities, a diocese organization, charges a nominal charge for services, Acken added.

Haitians applying for TPS must prove Haitian nationality and that they were in the U.S. on or before Jan. 12, 2010, Redman said.

Questions on TPS are being asked in most of the 12 Haitian churches in Manatee and Sarasota counties, pastors said.

“They should avoid people who would scam them by promising services that are unavailable, overcharging or worse placing the person in the position of being deported,” Acken said. “We want to guard them against unscrupulous people, They should be seeing an attorney or certified representative only.”

Gulfcoast Legal Services, which has representatives who speak Creole, will provide free legal help to income qualified applicants for Haitian TPS, according to the Gulfcoast Web site.

For information, call (727) 821-0726, ext. 376, or 1-800-230-5920, ext. 376.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, Ext. 6686.

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