PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly on Wednesday said he was open to discussing letting more than 50,000 victims of Haiti's 2010 earthquake stay in the United States past next January.
Kelly met with Haitian President Jovenel Moise during a brief visit to the island and he defended the U.S. decision earlier this month to extend a deadline for temporary protection from deportation for Haitians for six months that was set to expire in July.
"It is not meant to be an open-ended law but a temporary law," Kelly told journalists.
"It has been seven years since the earthquake, which was the reason TPS (temporary protected status) was implemented. I have committed to the president and the government that we can work together to go forward on any future extensions."
A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince in January 2010, killing some 200,000 people.
Immigration activists said the extension did not take into account the damage created by Hurricane Matthew, which killed an estimated 1,000 people when it struck the Caribbean nation last year.
Some aid groups warned mass deportations could unsettle the country that has long history of political instability.
Kelly dismissed critics who said his visit was too short to develop a proper idea of Haiti's situation, saying that he visited the country "no less than 10, maybe 15 times" while he was based in Miami as the head of U.S. Southern Command.
"I would say to people who made those statements, well, they don't know what they're talking about," Kelly said.
Under U.S. law, the Department of Homeland Security can award temporary protected status to citizens of nations devastated by violence, disease or natural disasters.
Sudan, Somalia, Syria, El Salvador, Nepal and Yemen all have been designated for temporary protected status.
(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Sandra Maler)