WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2010— -- The Obama administration said today that tens of thousands of illegal Haitian immigrants can remain temporarily in the U.S. while their country rebuilds after Tuesday's devastating earthquake.
The announcement to grant "temporary protective status," or TPS, to Haitian nationals allows immigrants already in the U.S. to live and work freely here until conditions in Haiti improve. After 18 months the status could be revoked.
"This is a disaster of historic proportions and this designation will allow eligible Haitian nationals in the United States to continue living and working in our country for the next 18 months," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced late today on a conference call. "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."
Napolitano estimated that there are 100,000 to 200,000 Haitian nationals currently in the country illegally.
"TPS gives them sort of an intermediate immigration status," said the secretary. "It allows them -- only for a period of 18 months, while Haiti gets back on its feet -- to remain in the United States and authorizes them to work during that period, among other things."
The administration's decision to grant this protection to Haitians with orders to leave is almost certain to fan the flames of the ongoing immigration debate.
While several liberal groups and members of Congress had urged the administration to declare TPS for Haitians, conservative immigration groups, as well as a Republican congressman, had said such a move would amount to a slippery slope to "amnesty."
"This sounds to me like open borders advocates exercising the Rahm Emanuel axiom: 'Never let a crisis go to waste,'" Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said in an e-mail message to ABCNews. "Illegal immigrants from Haiti have no reason to fear deportation, but if they are deported, Haiti is in great need of relief workers, and many of them could be a big help to their fellow Haitians."
By law, the secretary of Homeland Security can offer temporary protected status to illegal immigrants of a particular nationality if calamities such as natural disasters or war make it too burdensome for their home countries to receive them.
El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan currently have temporary protective status designations.
Immigrants without criminal records and residing in the United States at the time the new status is extended simply pay a fee to apply for temporary protected status and then receive protection for up to 18 months.
Granting Protected Status to Haitians Likely to Stir Immigration Debate
Even though temporary protected status, by itself, does not lead to permanent resident status or a green card, the government can -- and often does -- renew it repeatedly as conditions warrant. That troubles immigration opponents.
"Apparently, there's nothing temporary about a temporary protected status order, and we do not want to see millions of Haitian refugees permanently transplanted to the United States in the middle of the economic nightmare we're in the middle of," William Gheen, president of the conservative Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said.
Dan Stein, president of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in a statement that while he supports temporary suspension of deportations to Haiti, temporary protective status has been abused in the past.
"It is incumbent upon our national leaders to not only act compassionately but to act responsibly," he said. "In some cases, such as TPS for citizens of El Salvador, the triggering event occurred nearly a decade ago."
While some of the most conservative opponents of illegal immigration oppose temporary protected status, several Republicans support its extension to Haitians. Shortly after Tuesday's quake, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart -- all GOP House members from Florida -- sent a letter to President Obama reiterating their earlier pleas for TPS for Haitians.
"The combined destruction from today's catastrophic earthquake and the previous storms clearly makes forced repatriation of Haitians hazardous to their safety at this time. We strongly believe that it is for such a situation that Congress created TPS," the letter read.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, went further Wednesday, saying it is "not only immoral but irresponsible to continue to deny Haitians TPS."
Still, given the politically charged immigration debate, the administration's decision to grant even "temporary" relief to thousands of illegal immigrants was not made lightly.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, had denied Haitians' repeated previous requests for temporary protective status since the fall of 2008, after four hurricanes and tropical storms killed hundreds of people, destroyed Haiti's food crops and caused nearly $1 billion in damage.
Napolitano called the administration's action today "an act of compassion among other things," signaling just how serious the circumstances on the ground in Haiti have become.
ABC News' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.