updated 1/15/2010 6:46:28 PM ET 2010-01-15T23:46:28

The Obama administration said Friday it will allow Haitians who are in the United States illegally to remain because of this week's catastrophic earthquake.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano granted the temporary protected status on Friday, two days after she temporarily halted deportations of Haitians, even those already in detention. The protection is available only to Haitians already in the country as of last Tuesday, when the quake struck their home island. They will be allowed to stay and work for 18 months.

Act of compassion
Napolitano told reporters that the temporary legal status is an act of compassion.

"It's a horrible thing that has happened to Haiti," the secretary said.

Temporary protected status is granted to foreigners who may not be able to return safely to their country because of a natural disaster, armed conflict or other reasons.

Haitians in the United States illegally have pleaded for years for permission to stay, work and send money home to their loved ones in need after disasters at home, the treatment the federal government gave Central Americans in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch devastated their region.

The Haitians have been denied despite four tropical storms in 2008, massive floods almost every other year since 2000 and the long-running political strife that has prompted thousands to seek asylum in the United States.

About 30,000 Haitians have orders to leave the United States, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. Many others are appealing their cases. Thousands of others live underground.

Among those who had been hoping for the relief is Yvrose, a soft-spoken mother of two who would not give her last name for fear of hurting her case.

Yvrose fled Haiti in 2003 after men searching for her husband, a member of an opposition political party, beat her so badly she ended up unconscious in a hospital.

Denied political asylum
She says family members spirited her by boat to the United States, where she applied for political asylum. The request was denied and a temporary work permit was canceled last year, but an appellate board has ordered her case reheard. Now, like thousands of other Haitians, she remains in limbo: she can stay for now due to Napolitano's order, but she cannot work or get a driver's license.

Yvrose, 31, said the current halt to deportations means little if she cannot get a job to help her family rebuild their home in Port-au-Prince. Her father, who supported the family as best he could in Haiti with sporadic work as a tailor, is unlikely to find jobs soon, if he is still alive, she said.

"I need so much to work for my family in Haiti and to put food on the table for my kids here," she said through an interpreter Thursday, her voice heavy with exhaustion.

Federal law permits Homeland Security to grant immigrants temporary protected status in the event of a natural disaster or civil war. Before Friday, the department had said only that TPS was an option.

Those who favor a stricter U.S. immigration policy have in the past vehemently opposed giving temporary protected status because they argued it is a backdoor to granting amnesty. TPS given to Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Hondurans following Mitch was extended repeatedly for more than a decade, presumably long after those countries were able to rebuild. About 350,000 Central Americans have the designation, as do about 950 Somalis and Sudanese in the United States since 2001 and 2004.

"TPS was invented for this kind of situation, but it has been turned into something much more permanent" said Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies. "And while we probably should grant TPS to Haitians who were here before the earthquake, we really need to make sure it's temporary."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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