A new reunification program to allow the Haitian relatives of eligible U.S. citizens and permanent residents the opportunity to apply for early entrance to the United States began this year, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced last October that it would begin offering certain select beneficiaries currently residing in Haiti, an invitation to apply for an immigration visa two years before their visa dates were current. A similar program offered to Cuban families began in 2007.

Proponents say there are approximately 90,000 Haitian beneficiaries in Haiti of immigration-approved family-based visa petitions. But these are on backlog and that, in the first year, only 5,000 could potentially be eligible for interviews to see if they meet the regular requirements.

According to Deputy Director of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, this Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program would “promote a fundamental underlying goal of our immigration system – family reunification. It also supports broader U.S. goals for Haiti’s reconstruction and development.”

DHS is emphasizing that this is an invitation-only program. The State Department’s National Visa Center is responsible for contacting eligible individuals to offer the opportunity to and instructions on how to apply to the program. A stern warning was also issued that individuals trying to enter the U.S. via illegal maritime voyages will not be eligible for this program.

Ever since the January 2010 earthquake that killed over 200,000 people and left millions of people displaced, an organization called the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), says it has continuously worked to get a reunification program for Haiti off the ground.

“We generated over 80 items of support during the ensuing nearly five years,” said Steven Forester, Immigration Policy Coordinator at the IJDH. “All urging [President Obama] to create such a program to save lives, reunite families, and help Haiti recover by generating a new source of remittances back to Haiti.”

“Although the program is limited, we were very encouraged.”

Despite Forester’s optimism, he does still believe that the program should be expanded to include more people. Especially since some families can wait as long as 13 years for an entrance visa.

“This is a new program. The State Department’s National Visa Center is [currently] sending out invitations to apply — to petitioners in the U.S. (themselves either US citizens or legal permanent residents of the U.S.) — who as of [mid December last year] had filed petitions, which DHS has approved, on behalf of about 7,350 beneficiaries in Haiti for whom visas will be available in about 18 to 30 months,” Forester explained.

He sees drawbacks as well. Mainly with the processing timeline and contacting logistics.

“[The] U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services think the approval process (from applying to being interviewed and finally approved) will take about six months. Does the National Visa Center have the latest addresses for petitioners? Have they notified the NVC of their latest addresses? [And] how many petitioners will choose to participate in the program?”

The USCIS held town hall meetings this month in New York, Boston, and Miami. He said the turnout was good and people are interested and prepared to pay the expensive processing fees.

“I think the community is very interested,” he said. “This program is limited, but some people will presumably avail themselves, despite the costs, of the opportunity of being paroled into the U.S. up to two years before they otherwise would have been able to come here.”