Illegal immigrants who lost family on 9/11 asking Congress for residency

Saturday, November 18th 2006, 10:03 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) In a small meeting room with a view of ground zero, 40 stories below, the woman from Ecuador sat with her attorney, holding a crumpled white napkin that she used to dab her eyes.

She is a September 11th widow. Her husband worked at the Windows on the World restaurant and died that day.

As an illegal immigrant, one of about 25 identified as having lost a family member when the World Trade Center came crashing down, she could face deportation at any time. So could her 17-year-old son, whom she implores to carry around his father's death certificate, in case someone asks him why he is in the U.S.

``I can't get a driver's license. I can't go to apply for a job. I can't work. I can't study. I can't fly. I can't do anything,'' the 38-year-old woman said in accented English this week as she described how her life in the U.S. is constrained by her illegal status. She spoke on condition that her name not be used, for fear she might be deported.

A New York City group is urging Congress to pass legislation that would grant permanent residence status to the illegal immigrants who lost family members on September 11th.

The bill, called the September 11th Family Humanitarian Relief and Patriotism Act, is attached as an amendment to the immigration reform package that is tied up in the lame-duck Congress.

Bill Fugazy Jr., vice chair of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, said the bill should be pulled out of the immigration package and given a vote on its own merits.

``It's an easy thing for Congress to do,'' he said, pointing out that the bill has bipartisan support. ``Give them green cards so they have status here, so they can buy the homes that they would want to, and so they are not in the shadows of society.''

Eleven illegal immigrant victims were identified under the federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which gave financial support to survivors of the attack and paid an average of $2.1 million to the families.

Fugazy's organization has launched a letter-writing campaign directed at the chairmen of both congressional committees charged with immigration issues, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.

An aide to Specter said she couldn't immediately comment, but said his office was aware of the issue. E-mails and voice messages left at Sensenbrenner's Washington office Saturday were not immediately returned.

``We are building marble monuments for the dead. Can't we make room for their families?'' said attorney Debra Brown Steinberg, who helped write the bill and has represented five undocumented victims' families.

The legislation could face some opposition.

Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the families of undocumented immigrant victims of September 11th are legitimate subjects of compassion, but he said they should not be treated any differently than those who lost a breadwinner as a result of any other accident.

``Those people have come into the country in violation of the laws,'' Martin said. ``We don't think that the fact that they have suffered a loss of this type should be grounds for awarding them the permanent residence they would have tried to maintain illegally in this country, without that event having happened.''

Martin said his organization has been focused on the overall immigration reform package rather than the amendment, but if it were to become a stand-alone bill the group would register its concern with lawmakers.

However, with only a few weeks left in the current Congress, even if the measure became a stand-alone bill it would not be taken up until the next Congress meets in the spring.

If the bill doesn't pass, the Ecuadorean widow and others will have to decide whether to return home or to continue to live here in fear of being deported. ``This country became part of my life,'' she said.

The woman, whose husband worked at the Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant, said she is fulfilling some of the dreams that she and her husband had for their family. Her son will graduate from a private high school next spring and is applying to colleges. They have their own apartment.

``But we are missing somebody,'' she said. ``It's just the two of us. My husband is not with us.''