NEW YORK – Fifteen illegal immigrants who lost a spouse or child in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were granted temporary legal status Friday, a potential move toward legal U.S. residency for people who have lived in limbo since losing their loved ones.
The Department of Homeland Security's decision could clear the way for the survivors to share their personal stories with Congress without fear of deportation — information some legislators had said was necessary before the relatives could be granted a path to staying in the country legally.
"There was a moment of non-comprehension," lawyer Debra Brown Steinberg said, referring to the long-awaited calls she made to her clients. "Then you could hear it sink in — and the joy, and the tears. ... To them, it's a miracle."
In a letter sent Friday, Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy, announced the decision to grant legal standing to the 15 immigrants for one year. The term could be extended if the matter is not resolved in that time.
"The events of Sept. 11 are a part of our lives and our national history and a part of our story," Baker said. "If they want to become part of the country after living through such a formative experience for the country, then we think that's the right answer."
The 15 have received money from the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, and Steinberg said she believed other survivors who got money from it had already found other paths to legal residency.
A proposal to grant permanent residency to the relatives stalled in Congress last year. Some House members said they didn't have enough information and raised concerns about the possibility of giving legal status to criminals or terrorists.
A 16th person was not granted relief because he or she did not file tax returns despite holding a job, the agency said.
Steinberg said she hoped Friday's decision would lead to a turnabout for her clients, who have lived under a legal cloud, unable even to buy homes despite receiving perhaps millions of dollars from the compensation fund.
"They love this country. They sacrificed their greatest love — their husband, their father — on that day," she said. "It's my hope that these families don't have one more Sept. 11 where Congress has not acted on their behalf."