Fifteen illegal immigrants who lost a spouse or child in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were granted temporary legal status, a potential move toward legal US residency for people who have lived in limbo since losing their loved ones.
The Department of Homeland Security's decision yesterday 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 yesterday, 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 September 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 September 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.