WASHINGTON (CBSMiami.com) – Tens of thousands of undocumented Haitians living in South Florida at the time the devastating Haitian earthquake hit will be allowed to remain in the US without fear of deportation for another 18 months, and in a surprise move, the Department of Homeland Security extended that protections to thousands more who arrived in the US after the quake hit.

The Haitians have been allowed to remain in the US under Temporary Protected Status, which allowed any Haitian in the US as of January 12, 2010 to remain in the country without reprisal through July 23rd of this year.

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But with earthquake recovery in Haiti moving at a glacial pace, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said the extension was the right thing to do.

“In the extended aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, the United States has remained fully committed to upholding our responsibility to assist individuals affected by this tragedy by using tools available under the law,” said Secretary Napolitano in a written statement. “Providing a temporary refuge for Haitian nationals who are currently in the United States and whose personal safety would be endangered by returning to Haiti is part of this administration’s continuing efforts to support Haiti’s recovery.”

While the TPS extension had been expected, it a somewhat surprising move, Napolitano also extended the status to all Haitians who arrived here in the year following the earthquake. Many of those people were allowed to enter the United States immediately after the earthquake on temporary visas, humanitarian parole and through other immigration measures. Only Haitians who have been in the US continuously since January 10, 2011, are covered under this expansion of TPS.

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Federal officials say about 48 thousand Haitians in the US are eligible for the temporary protected status. Ineligible for TPS is anyone who has been convicted of a felony or two or more misdemeanors in the United States, or is subject to one of the criminal, or security-related bars to admissibility under immigration law. There are other restrictions involving criminal activity, human rights violations, and public safety.

The Department of Homeland Security said in it’s statement no Haitian attempting to enter the US without permission after January 10th will be eligible for TPS.

“ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is prepared to aggressively investigate and present for prosecution those who seek to defraud the U.S. government in an attempt to gain TPS or engage in immigration benefit fraud as the result of the expansion of this program,” DHS said. “ICE will also pursue human smugglers whose only goals are to profit at the expense of others.”

The government is also preparing new rules for Haitian students with visas allowing them to study in the US that will allow extended stays, extended work hours, and easing of other restrictions.

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