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Illegal immigrants who lost family on 9-11 ask Congress for residency
NEW YORK -- The woman was widowed when her husband died in the terrorists' attack on the World Trade Center, whose twin towers once would have been seen from the windows of the meeting room where she sits with her attorney.
But this Sept. 11 widow is an illegal immigrant -- one of about 25 identified as having lost a family member in the disaster -- and she could face deportation at any time. So could her 17-year-old son, and she begs him to carry his father's death certificate in case someone asks him why he is in the United States.
"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 from Ecuador said this past week. 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 Sept. 11, 2001.
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 Sept. 11 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.
E-mails and voice messages left at their Washington offices 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 Sept. 11 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."