NEW YORK – Apparently, the Immigration and Naturalization Service hasn't heard about being sensitive in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The agency has told Deena Gilbey, the British widow of World Trade Center victim Paul Gilbey, that she is no longer legally residing in this country because she had been staying in the U.S. on her husband's work visa.
"My husband was murdered in this country, his remains are still there somewhere at Ground Zero, and now the U.S. government is killing us all over again," the 37-year-old New Jersey resident told London's Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Only days after her husband was killed, Gilbey was told that she had become something of an instant illegal alien. That's because she was listed as a nonworking dependent, and when Paul's visa was cancelled by his death, she lost her right to stay in the country. However, that's not the case for her sons, 7-year-old Maxwell and 3-year-old Mason, who were born in the U.S. and are citizens.
Gilbey will not be deported, INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said. But she is in a kind of legal limbo.
And she's not alone. Strassberger said early INS estimates showed that about 100 people lost their primary immigration sponsors in the attacks.
For Gilbey, though, insult was added to injury last week when she discovered that, under U.S. law, the Internal Revenue Service takes 60 percent of her husband's life insurance payment as a tax because she isn't a citizen and has no green card. So, even if she were to be able to stay in America, she wouldn’t be able to afford it, said Det. Sgt. George Petersen, the Chatham Township police official who has been helping the Gilbey family with their immigration problems.
"They live here, they own a house here, they pay taxes, he pays income taxes, and yet he dies and they're going to be penalized 60 percent," an exasperated Petersen said in a telephone interview with Fox News.
It's a trap Gilbey had never imagined being in. For eight years, she and her husband were model American residents, living in the affluent bedroom community of Chatham Township, about 30 minutes from New York City, where Paul worked at a brokerage. As soon as they got here, the couple had been trying to get a green card with an eye toward becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.
Only bureaucratic inertia kept them from realizing their American dream.
But everything changed on Sept. 11, when Paul went to work at his firm, EuroBrokers, on the 84th floor of 2 World Trade Center. The last time Gilbey spoke to her husband was when he called her on the phone just after 1 World Trade Center was struck by the first plane.
He said he was safe.
She told him to "go, go, go."
"Survivors have told me that Paul made it to the 74th floor, where the lifts were still working," she told the Telegraph. "There, with a friend, he helped to get women and people in wheelchairs into the lifts, holding back himself and other men. He insisted that women and children get to safety first. Paul did the right thing, and this is the reward for his family."
Gilbey wasn't immediately available for comment Tuesday evening, a friend at her home told Fox News.
But others in her community — where people have rallied around her troubles, calling congressmen, senators and even British Prime Minister Tony Blair — have plenty to say.
Chatham Township Police Chief George Kurzenknabe said he would do anything he could to help her and her boys.
"I think every day they wake up they're victims all over again," he said. "Something like this has never happened before. Some special acts need to take place to reassure them they have no need to worry."
The INS is trying its best, Strassberger said. They have offered Gilbey a deferred-action category for those without visas. Though she won't be removed from the country, she also does not have all the rights of a full legal immigrant. Gilbey would have to let the INS know when she wanted to leave and return to the U.S.
Tuesday, Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., stepped up for Gilbey's cause and said he will offer an amendment to the anti-terrorism bill now winding its way through Congress on her behalf. The measure would give the INS the discretion of offering people in Gilbey's situation the right to become citizens, Torricelli deputy press secretary Adam Herbsman said.
Whether or not Congress comes through for her, Gilbey and her supporters will keep fighting to keep the family in America, Petersen said.
"Right now she's very focused on taking care of herself and her two children," he said.