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Families of undocumented victims find help scarce

Felix Martinez says her husband, an illegal alien, was working at the World Trade Center on September 11.  

From Peter Viles

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Among the thousands who died September 11 at the World Trade Center were many illegal aliens, whose families face serious obstacles in obtaining relief from charities.

The seemingly endless paperwork that must be filled out to receive aid is particularly hard for the relatives of victims who did not have official documentation that they worked in the twin towers or even in New York.

One such case is that of Jose Morales. His common-law wife, Felix Martinez, said Morales was working in the towers when they collapsed. She said he cleaned a restaurant but does not know exactly where.

"She knew that he was working in the tower, and on September 11, he phoned Felix's cousin to tell her that he was in the tower and he was OK," said social worker Camina Makar. "He said, 'I'll call you back later.' When he didn't, Felix's cousin called her in Mexico and said, 'This is what happened.' So she came right away."

Until June she and Morales lived with their four children in a small rural village in the southern Mexican state of Puebla. The week of September 11, she said she flew to the border, crossed over illegally and traveled by van to New York in hopes of finding her husband.

"I tried immediately to come here, so I arranged things and came over and tried to look for him with the help of my cousin, and I started to work," Martinez said, speaking through a translator. "I didn't know what to do. I still don't know what to do."

The mystery has few clues. Morales had no Social Security number and worked illegally so he had no pay stubs. Now in the United States illegally herself, Martinez does not speak English.

New York authorities who are helping the families of victims have been flexible in opening case files. They have accepted sworn affidavits where there is no documentation. Lauris Wren, a specialist in such cases, explains some of the difficulties.

"They don't know where he was working specifically," said Wren, a representative of the New York Bar Association. "They don't know under what name he was working. They don't have an address where he was living. So they can't, say, get DNA samples to give to the police from brushes and combs."

Authorities have not opened a file on Morales' case yet. It simply remains too sketchy. Beyond the missing paperwork, these cases raise a number of questions: If someone was in this country illegally, is the family entitled to the same aid and benefits as families of tax-paying citizens?

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has made it clear he believes that those families are entitled to something.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has said he believes all families are entitled to some relief.  

"If you are undocumented or if your family member or friend that you are seeking to find or find a death certificate for, get a death certificate for, you are safe," Giuliani said. "Nothing is going to be done to you, and in fact, we would like you to register."

For now, there is no answer for Martinez, or for the charities and agencies working to help families and victims. They face enormous obstacles seeking moving aid for those who need it most, even when the victims are U.S. citizens and the paper trail is visible.

Tepeyac, an outreach group working with immigrant families, said some of those families have come forward and are receiving charitable aid. But group officials said they suspect many families in this country illegally are afraid to come forward.


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