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Many still need 9/11 help

BY RACHEL CLARK | NEW YORK CITY | September 6, 2002

"They don't know what's going to happen."

—Michelle Archer

A butcher working in the Windows on the World restaurant atop one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City was killed when terrorists smashed a plane into one of the towers.

When he passed away -- trying to help others escape the burning tower -- his spouse and children became ineligible to live in the United States because he was an undocumented citizen. His family is ineligible to receive financial assistance from the government, and his family has until this September 10 to leave the country.

While the majority of families who lost a loved one in the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City are in the process of receiving compensation for their loss, there are several families that have fallen through the cracks.

"There were a number of H-1 Visas working in the World Trade Center," said Michelle Archer, program coordinator for the 9/11 Fund at the NJ Immigration and Policy Network. "There were a number of individuals at the World Trade Center cleaning windows, etc. Their spouses and their children passed away and it basically put their immigrant status at risk. They don't know what's going to happen."

Archer said children, who were born in the United States and are considered U.S. citizens, are now facing deportation because one of their parents died in the attacks and the living parent does not have documentation that allows him or her to remain in the United States legally.

Undocumented citizens are among the many victims of the terrorist attacks with unmet needs, particularly because there are several daunting barriers that prevent them from seeking the aid needed for survival in the United States.

"One was transportation," said Archer. "The information center wasn't located in a place accessible by public transportation. It was in a closed-off and controlled area and the INS was present, as were the police."

For immigrants, police and immigration agents represent past suffering they might have experienced in countries where local and government authority figures are not to be trusted.

"They represent something awful," she said. "They (immigrants) come from countries where police weren't people you trust, they were people you fear."

According to Benjamin Ross, disaster relief coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition, the initial immigrant response to seek aid was pretty small.

"Right after the attacks happened, a number of undocumented immigrants were uncomfortable accessing federal government benefits," he said. "There were language and information access barriers ... a lot of people didn't know about the help available until January and February."

To help immigrants feel more comfortable accessing information, Archer, and other relief groups, helped set up an immigrant-information desk and helped set up outreach centers at four locations in New Jersey in non-profit organizations that have a history of working with the immigrant community.

"We coordinated translators, attorneys, interpreters ... who were available to assist the immigrants coming in and also to inform the other service providers on relevant issues," Archer said.

In addition to dealing with the loss of a loved one and the hardships associated with seeking assistance, many immigrants lost their jobs.

"The attacks primarily hurt the immigrant community in the hospitality, hotel, restaurant and garment industries," Ross said. "A lot of those industries have a high immigration density and are often the first people to be laid off -- especially the undocumented immigrants."

And it is the undocumented immigrants who have an especially difficult time getting help in their time of need.

"It's hard being an undocumented person in this country," Ross said. "People normally rely on food stamps, welfare and other forms of public assistance. But those forms are not available to undocumented individuals. They do try to find jobs when they can and a number of charities went out of their way to help, but it's still hard."

The hardest issue to deal with, according to Archer, is certainly the trauma of losing a loved one and living in a country immigrants thought was safe.

"The attacks definitely bring up past trauma," she said. "This is a vulnerable population for many reasons, and 9-11 had an emotional impact. People have come here from countries where they were fleeing persecution, fleeing wars ... you already have past trauma, and this event just triggers that."

Add to the inability to access assistance, the loss of jobs and the experience of intense trauma, the possibility of deportation, and immigrants are carrying a heavy load.

"The Windows on the World workers were so far up that they never recovered those individuals, and that's really a different issue. In their (immigrant) minds, that actually is a burial ground and for them it will remain that, so that's the last place their loved one was," said Archer. "How do you have to tell them they have to leave that? It isn't an issue of immigration, it should be a humanitarian response."

According to Archer, a lot of the heroes people hear about are American, "but what people forget is that it just wasn't Americans who lost their lives there. And we have a human obligation to provide their families with permission to stay in this country."

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