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 couples
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
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 Corzines 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
Patakis 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 cant make policy for the INS. The onus is on the
federal government to make these exceptions."
Only two days after Patakis 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
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 victims 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 Patakis 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 Patakis
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