NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A year ago, Shafali Agarwal and her 9-year-old son had a life in the United States. Now, they are just visitors.
Agarwal’s right to stay in the country ended when her husband, Cantor Fitzgerald computer technician Alok Agarwal, disappeared in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Now his wife, 31, waits to see if she and her son, Ankush, will be deported when their visitor visas expire in November.
"I don’t know about my future and my child’s future," she said.
Although the Immigration and Naturalization Service promised to be lenient with foreign survivors of the Sept. 11 victims, Agarwal, a national of India, waits in legal limbo. Not permitted by the terms of her visa to work here and unwilling to return to India, where widows are shunned, Agarwal waits to find out when–and if–she and her son will be permitted to stay here.
They are two of more than 100 immigrants whose permission to live here depended upon the visas of loved ones killed on Sept. 11.
Congress passed the USA Patriot Act last October, allowing spouses and children who were dependent on the visas of Sept. 11 victims to remain in the United States until Sept. 10, or until the visa they depended on expired, whichever comes later. They must leave or find another legal way to stay. They can apply for authorization to work, but foreign travel is complicated.
Patriot Act Applies to Small Number of Widows
It is unclear how many widows of foreign nationals have benefited from the USA Patriot Act and how many, like Agarwal, fall through the cracks. The legislation does not allow Agarwal to apply for permanent residency because her husband had not applied before the Sept. 11 attacks. In order to apply for permanent residence under the Patriot Act, an application had to have been filed before Sept. 11.
Sen. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey introduced legislation on Dec. 5 that would allow foreign survivors dependent on the visas of those killed on Sept. 11 to apply for citizenship. But that legislation has been stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee since August.
A mishap with immigration officials prevents Agarwal from working. She and her son were on vacation in India on Sept. 11. She returned to New Jersey on Sept. 17, leaving her distraught son in the care of relatives. "I told my son, ‘I will come back with Papa,’" Agarwal said. In January, she went back to India alone.
When she and her son returned to the United States in April, they were detained for more than four hours before being stripped of their passports because their visa status was unclear to immigration officials. Only then were they allowed to leave the airport.
In order to get the passports back, Agarwal later agreed to be classed as a visitor, which permitted a six-month stay. "They told me, ‘Either you have to go back to India tomorrow, or you can apply for a visitor visa,’" she said. That visa expires on Nov. 20, and does not allow her to work.
"At this time, for myself and for my child, I have to work," said Agarwal, who has been surviving on her husband’s life insurance and relief from aid organizations while living in New Jersey with an aunt who lost a son in the World Trade Center, "but because of the visa status I cannot do anything."
Staying in United States Means Remaining Close to Those Lost
Agarwal’s friend, Sonia Gawas, has fared better. Gawas, 26, also from India, lost her husband of nine months, Cantor Fitzgerald programmer Ganesh Ladkat, in the World Trade Center attack. Since Gawas’ husband had applied for permanent residency before Sept. 11, Gawas can continue that application in his stead under the Patriot Act.
Gawas’ in-laws still hope Ladkat will be found alive. "They tell me, ‘He’ll call you one day,’" she said. Despite the optimism of her in-laws, Gawas believes that Ground Zero is her husband’s final resting place.
"I feel closer to him here" in the United States, she said. "Though he is not physically here, I want to continue to fulfill his dreams and our dreams here." Cantor Fitzgerald has been helping Gawas wade through Immigration and Naturalization Service forms. While she waits for work authorization, she is taking professional development classes at a New Jersey college.
Out of the approximately 20 immigrant widows and children of Cantor Fitzgerald employees, at most five can apply for permanent residency under the Patriot Act because the other primary beneficiaries did not apply before Sept. 11, said Freddi Weintraub, immigration counsel with Cantor Fitzgerald, the company hardest hit by the trade center attack. More than 700 of its employees have been declared dead or missing.
Passage of Corzine’s Bill Deemed Unlikely
Some women have been stranded outside the country because of difficulties with their visas, Weintraub said, while others wait anxiously for some loophole that will let them stay.
In one rancorous and public case, Deena Gilbey, the British widow of a EuroBrokers trader, enlisted British and American politicians and the media to keep her case in the public eye, claiming that the immigration service had threatened to deport her just days after the attacks, an accusation the agency denied.
Gilbey’s protracted and public appeal for citizenship ended in July, when the immigration service granted her permanent residency. She and her husband, Paul Gilbey, had filed a permanent residency application before his death. An agency spokesman told The Associated Press that the publicity had nothing to do with the success of her application.
Weintraub worries that after the Sept. 11 anniversary, the public will lose interest and politicians will lose incentive to push for these widows to remain in the United States permanently.
With Congress scheduled to adjourn on Oct. 4 to campaign for the November elections, there is little time to get Corzine’s bill into law. As a stopgap, Sen. Corzine is trying to extend the immigration provisions of the Patriot Act until Sept. 10, 2003.
Still, an extension would leave widows unable to make long-term plans about where to make a life for themselves and their children. "If nothing else is introduced," said Weintraub, "they will have no legal basis to stay here."
Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.
For more information:
USA Patriot Act:
Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy, P.C
Immigration Resource Center:
Families Memorial Page: