01/12/2011 12:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Haitian Refugee Advocate

This week we're focusing on Greatest People helping out with the aftereffects of last year's devastating earthquake in Haiti. Today marks the one-year anniversary of the 2010 disaster.

Peterson St. Philippe knows from personal experience just how hard it can be to immigrate to a new country without the language skills or legal understanding necessary to survive.

As a Haitian immigrant himself, his family was taken advantage of by con artists posing as legal practitioners. These practitioners, lacking any formal training in law, use their knowledge of Haitian Creole to offer misguided legal advice on immigration processes, taking their money and leaving them to navigate the process alone. Often, this bad advice can lead a refugee down a devastating legal path that could have been avoided had the process been handled properly.

"I started seeing some of the same things that happened to my family 10, 18 years ago," he said. "Why is it that this is still happening today? That moved me to want to outreach, to educate people."

After graduating law school in 2009, Peterson returned to his home in the Tampa Bay area in order to serve the Haitian community. He helps those eligible for an extended stay in the U.S. file correctly, so they can forge a life for themselves.

Today, as an Equal Justice Works Fellow working with Gulf Coast Legal Services, Peterson finds himself in a prime position to give back. For Haitian immigrants who arrived before the quake, he assists in filing for Temporary Protected Status--letting them stay and work here for up to 18 months.

But for survivors who fled to America after the quake, the legal options differ. Typically granted temporary visa status, these immigrants cannot legally work or drive a car, leaving them stranded in legal limbo. Many of these people have nothing to go back to in Haiti, where they have lost homes and family members.

"Who would want to go back to a situtation like that?" he said. "If you're a mother who lost your husband and you don't have your house, you don't want to go back at this moment. It's important for these people to get some kind of protection."

Peterson explains that some immigrants may be eligible for Deferred Action--an administrative term that means the government is aware of their presence and realizes that in ordinary circumstances they would be made to leave after their visa expired, but will allow a one to two year stay of action, even granting employment authorization.

Despite the availability of these options, Haitians new to the U.S. and unable to speak English are vulnerable to predatory con artists. Particularly in the Tampa area, which lacks the immigrant community of Southern Florida, Haitian refugees often do not know where to turn for help, and are led to con shops that file forms inappropriately or wrongfully, eventually leading to a denial of the status they so desperately need.

Knowing this, Peterson pursued a fellowship with Equal Justice Works to provide this much-needed service.

"I saw firsthand how Haitian immigrants can be taken advantage of--Haitian immigrants tend to trust people who speak the same language and who look like them," he said. "The reason why people are going to these unlicensed practitioners is that they dont know any better."

For these unlicensed practitioners, it's more profitable not to tell immigrants whether they qualify for the status they're filing for. Peterson recalled the case of one 20-year-old Haitian woman who had fled after the earthquake and been taken in by just such a practitioner.

"He filed an improper application and it was denied and she lost her money," he said. "She gave up all hope. She came to me and I discovered that if she filed a proper application before her 21st birthday, she would be able to get lawful resident status in the US."

Peterson met this woman a mere seven months before her birthday, but five months later the paperwork came through, and she was allowed to stay. "She could have been barred forever," he said.

Peterson visited Haiti in May, to visit family and get a firsthand view of the effects of the quake.

"Unfortunately a year later, still nothing has changed much. There are still about 800,000 people who haven't moved to permanent housing," he said. "It's truly truly sad to see that even the year after, even after all this money has been put in."

Peterson's outreach in the Haitian community has gotten over 100 people to register for legal aid. "We're establishing a reputation within the community," he said. "The best form of marketing is word of mouth. We do good work for people and we do all the work pro bono, so the word gets out."

Though the fellowship expires after two years, Peterson maintains his services won't disappear. "If I leave it'll go back to the same thing it was before I started. There'll be a void and people will go back to unlicensed practitioners," he said. "I would love for this project to be sustainable over a long period of time. I do still want to continue working with the Haitian community--that's what I'm passionate about."

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