FEBRUARY 2003

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Living In Limbo

By Joshua Brustein

Imelda Reyes did not plan to move to New York. But when her common-law husband, Leobardo Lopez, was killed while working at Windows on the World on September 11th, she lost her main source of support. Lopez was working in the United States illegally and sending enough money home to sustain Reyes and the couple’s two sons.

Reyes and her children left Pueblo, Mexico for New York, after being granted a one year visa to come to the United States to get their affairs in order. Besides doing things like filing for the federal victims’ compensation fund, Reyes enrolled her children in New Jersey public schools in order to keep their education going. She also looked for work herself to make ends meet.

In an open letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, New York Governor George Pataki asked for legal residency status for all family members of September 11th victims who, like Reyes, are having trouble with their immigration status. Calling attention to the "foreign nationals, both immigrants and non-immigrants, documented and undocumented, who came to New York in search of a brighter future," Pataki asked the federal government to grant employment authorization and the ability to apply for citizenship to a group of people whose future is now uncertain.

Governor Pataki is not the first government official to address this problem. Those whose status changed directly as a result of a death on September 11th , mostly husbands and wives of Cantor Fitzgerald employees whose legality relied on their spouses’ visas, were granted one year of amnesty under the USA PATRIOT Act. But when that year came to an end, they too became deportable (though up to this point no family member of any September 11th victim has actually been deported). Senator John Corzine introduced a bill late last year, which was defeated before getting out of the Judicial Committee, that would have made this amnesty permanent.

But neither the USA PATRIOT act nor Senator Corzine’s bill addressed people who have never had legal immigration status, even though the well-being of numerous families relied on the income of a family member who died during the September 11th attacks. These families are now in dire economic straits. Reyes, for example, said that she will have to stay in the United States even if that means doing so illegally — she cannot support herself and her children by working in Puebla, where wages are significantly lower than they are here.

"I want to live here, more than anything, for the well-being of my sons," she said. "For their future. If we could settle in, life would be calmer, I could work, and my kids could study."

Pataki’s letter is the first to offer help to people in Reyes’ position. But, as Molly Fullington, a spokesperson for Governor Pataki, pointed out, the letter is simply a symbolic statement. "[Immigration]’s a federal issue," she said. "The Governor can’t make policy for the INS. The onus is on the federal government to make these exceptions."

Only two days after Pataki’s letter was released, Senators John Corzine and Hillary Clinton of New York succeeded in passing an amendment to the federal omnibus appropriations bill stating that no money will be spent in fiscal 2003 (ending September 2003) to deport anyone who lost a family member on September 11th, taking the level of urgency in the issue down a notch.

"The terrorists made no distinction between American citizens and aliens killed in the attack, and we should not set aside the heroism of those aliens who died, and the terrible impact on their families," said Corzine. "I agree with the Governor [Pataki] that surviving family members should not fear deportation when their lives are so unsettled and their grief so immediate."

This bill, however, is only a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Corzine has voiced his intention to re-introduce his original bill, which will probably not be expanded to cover all families who suffered a death on September 11th. New York Representative Carolyn Maloney has also said that she will introduce legislation on the issue, but has not ironed out the details or set a timetable.

Even without the immediate threat of deportation, the lives of people like Reyes will remain challenging until a relevant bill is passed. It is impossible for an undocumented immigrant to file with the victim’s compensation fund or for aid from the Red Cross without an administrator who has legal status, building another level upon an already onerous bureaucratic structure. Finding work without legal status is also a challenge — one that some are facing for the first time.

But Reyes is hoping that efforts like Pataki’s can make a difference. She has been working with ROCNY, a group that represents sixteen families of undocumented Windows on the World workers who died in the attacks. The group has been writing letters to politicians for help, and asking for legislation that covers all those who lost family members during the attacks.

Knowing that the Governor is also in the letter writing business has lifted Reyes’ spirits. "It makes me feel a little better to know that there is someone worrying about us, someone who can possibly help us," she said, after hearing about Pataki’s letter.

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