- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

SAN PABLO ANICANO, Mexico — A paycheck stub, a phone record, a money-transfer receipt — all they needed was some piece of paper to prove their loved one existed.

Yet for families of Mexican migrants killed in the September 11 attacks and seeking compensation — or just a death certificate — even those small requirements have been impossible to meet, especially if the victims were in the United States illegally.

Without Social Security numbers, tax records — and in some cases, not even a birth certificate — grieving family members have been unable to confirm that their relatives were at the scene of the 2001 terrorist attacks, or provide documents necessary to receive a share of a fund that has awarded an average of a little more than $2 million per victim.

“When you’re undocumented in any country, it’s like you’re in a shadow,” said Norberto Terrazas, counsel for legal protection of Mexican citizens at their country’s consulate in New York. “No one sees you. No one notices. They can see your work, that you’re contributing to the economy and consuming goods, but you really don’t exist.”

Of 16 presumed Mexican victims — all illegal aliens — five of their families were able to prove their deaths in the attacks, and to qualify for compensation. Eleven others couldn’t — or didn’t even try to — produce the information necessary to obtain a death certificate.

In a spirit of compassion, U.S. authorities required little more than a picture of a victim in his or her former New York workplace to issue a death certificate for missing migrants.

But for at least five Mexican families, even that was too daunting.

“Much of the evidence I don’t think is that difficult to get,” Mr. Terrazas said in a telephone interview. “But in these cases, it’s just that the families did not have anything whatsoever … that could help us establish whether the person was there.”

Families of a dozen migrants from several Latin American countries including Colombia, Peru, Honduras and Bolivia, faced similar problems, said Teresa Garcia, development director for the Tepeyac Association, a nonprofit network of community organizations helping undocumented Latin American migrants in New York City.

“They say, ‘Bring your DNA sample.’ But these people don’t have that,” Mrs. Garcia said. “Or even dentist records. For people who live within the system, this is all common sense. But for those who don’t, it is very difficult to find the documents. Many of these people were born marginalized,” and some never even obtained a birth certificate.

Still, most of those 12 families were able to confirm the deaths of their relatives.

For the Mexican victims, the problem stems partly from their illegal status: Living on the fringes of U.S. society, undocumented migrants have no Social Security numbers, and often use fake names. Even legal migrants run into problems, because many share housing with others to save money and have no utility bills in their own name, Mrs. Garcia noted.

Others simply disappear, even from their family, giving few details about their whereabouts.

All Felix Martinez of Mexico’s central Puebla state knew is that her husband, Jose Morales, worked in or near the World Trade Center. He never told her exactly what he did, making it impossible for her to pursue a claim, Mrs. Garcia said.

In contrast, Leobardo Lopez, a cook at the Windows on the World restaurant, always stayed in touch during the seven years he worked in Los Angeles and New York. He sent money regularly and visited his family for months at a time before sneaking back illegally over the U.S. border.

Mr. Lopez’s relatives were relieved when investigators recovered partial remains and sent them home in June for burial. He is the only Mexican victim whose remains have been handed over to the family.

“We feel a little more at ease now,” his sister, Manuela Lopez Pascual de Mejia, said in an interview at San Pablo Anicano, a quiet village of 1,000 people in Sierra Mixteca. “Now we have someplace to place a flower or a candle.”

An estimated 500 people from 91 foreign countries were among the nearly 3,000 people who died in the September 11 attacks. About 250 foreigners — half of them — qualified for compensation from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund created by Congress.

Fund administrators didn’t release a breakdown of countries or regions for the 250 non-Americans who qualified for payments, nor did they disclose their average payout. The average award for all victims’ families has been a little more than $2 million.

Each of the five Mexican families qualifying for compensation asked that the amounts they received not be made public, Mr. Terrazas said.

Administrators estimate that about 50 of the 250 foreigners for whom compensation was paid were undocumented. The exact number is unknown because fund administrators didn’t ask for that information. In fact, they stressed that undocumented aliens who came forward would not be reported to immigration authorities.

“We took great pains, working closely with the undocumented worker families,” said Kenneth Feinberg, the Washington lawyer who ran the fund. “The people of the United States bent over backward to assist these families.”

Despite assurances, some families of illegal migrants decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

“A lot of them feared coming forward,” Mr. Terrazas said. “They don’t trust the authorities.”

Five Mexican families who initially contacted the Mexican Consulate to report missing relatives never followed up with claims. When consulate personnel tried to contact them, they either reached a wrong number or a cell phone that had been canceled or disconnected.

There are some success stories.

Ecuadorean families, who formed an association and hired lawyers to help them, confirmed the deaths of 15 Ecuadoreans, 12 of whom were undocumented, said the Ecuadorean vice consul in New York, Carol Hare. She couldn’t say whether all 15 families got compensation.

With terrorism a continuing threat in the United States, Manuela Lopez is worried that more illegal migrants will be killed — and forgotten forever. She has four siblings and a son working in Los Angeles illegally, and another son near Baltimore.

“I tell my sons to come home, because I hear all the time on the news that terrorism is going to continue to strike there,” she said. “They tell me, ‘We all have to die,’ but I say, ‘Not this way.’”

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