PHOENIX - Up to 200,000 Haitians in the United States when a devastating earthquake struck last week will be allowed to stay and work for up to 18 months to aid in their country's recovery, the U.S. government said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano granted Haiti Temporary Protected Status because of the Jan 12 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

The measure will allow eligible Haitians living in the United States when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck to work during a designated period of 18 months.

Nationals who are present in this country currently who may have not had authorization to work ... can now apply to do so in order to earn money and pass remittances back to Haiti that will assist in the rebuilding, Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security told Reuters.

It's very important that these work authorizations are given, because obviously it's a form of indirect economic aid, he added.

TPS is a temporary immigration status granted to eligible nationals of a certain country because of temporary negative conditions including armed conflict or an environmental disaster, that prevent nationals from returning home safely.

Individuals convicted of a felony or two or more misdemeanors while in the United States are not eligible.

Applications for TPS open on Thursday, and will continue for 180 days. Applicants must prove their Haitian citizenship as well as their residence in the United States before the earthquake struck.

The DHS estimates that approximately 100-200,000 Haitians and other stateless people last living in Haiti will be eligible to apply.

Fees total up to $470, including employment authorization, but are subject waivers for those unable to afford them.

There were 535,000 foreign born people from Haiti living in the United States in 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, which does not break down figures on immigration status.

The World Bank estimates that Haitians living abroad send $1.5-1.8 billion a year in remittances to their Caribbean country, which was already the hemisphere's poorest nation before the earthquake hit.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor, editing Alan Elsner)