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Sept. 11 created deep, long-lasting hardships for immigrants

By Deborah Kong The Associated Press
Monday January 21, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – Erlinda Valencia worries she could lose the airport security job she’s had for 14 years because her citizenship application hasn’t yet been approved. 

Carlos Michel’s father brought him across the Mexican border seven years ago, and he dreamed of attending the University of California, Berkeley next fall. Now he’s afraid to drive to the grocery store. 

Fauzia Melatyar couldn’t eat for days after her sister, an Afghan refugee she hasn’t seen in 19 years, was prevented from making a long-anticipated move to the United States. 

The impact of Sept. 11 continues to wash over immigrants in America. While a sense of normalcy is slowly returning for many in the nation, immigrants like Michel, Valencia and Melatyar still find themselves caught by circumstances that have created increased hardship. 

“The momentum in favor of immigrants and in favor of generous immigration policies was incredibly strong” before Sept. 11, said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. Now, “there is a lot of fear. We’re checking IDs a lot more, and are suspicious of each other a lot more.” 

Last summer was an optimistic time for immigrants, particularly Mexicans. 

President Bush signaled he was willing to grant legal status to undocumented Mexicans, perhaps through a guest worker program. Days before the attacks, Mexican President Vicente Fox was the first state visitor of the Bush presidency. 

Ever since the attacks, the immigration debate has focused on whether foreigners pose a threat to national security. 

“We as a people have no obligation to facilitate life for people who shouldn’t be here,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. 

That’s bad news for undocumented immigrants like Michel, who say they are just trying to carve out a life for themselves in America. He fears getting caught in the police dragnet aimed at capturing terrorists. 

Thousands of legal residents like Valencia may lose their jobs under a new law requiring airport screeners to be U.S. citizens. And, like 20,000 other refugees who had been approved to come to the United States, Melatyar’s sister was delayed after the attacks. 

“They don’t trust us. They think that we will not care for the American people, but we do,” said Valencia, a Filipina immigrant who has spotted knives, guns and a hand grenade in her 14 years as a screener at San Francisco International Airport. 

“This is now our home and we feel like we are a part of this country.” 

Like Valencia, about 20 percent of the nation’s 28,000 airport screeners are not citizens, and could lose their jobs under the new laws, said Andrew McDonald, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, which represents some of the screeners. Valencia joined with several other plaintiffs to file a lawsuit last week challenging the citizenship requirement. 

Valencia fears she could lose her job if her citizenship application isn’t approved by the time the requirement is invoked at the San Francisco airport. 

“It scares me a lot,” said Valencia, a 56-year-old single mother who supports three children. “I might end up living on the streets.” 

As local authorities begin to work more closely with federal agents, illegal immigrants like Michel worry the added scrutiny could lead to deportation. 

Michel, who sneaked into the United States with his family, said he avoids driving as much as possible now. Police could stop him and find he doesn’t have a driver’s license, which he couldn’t get because he’s here illegally. 

“Since Sept. 11, I’m more afraid the police might be a little more inquiring,” said Michel, 21, who lives near San Francisco. “If they (hear) an accent on you, they might start asking more questions.” 

Michel, who has a 3.9 GPA at a community college, wanted to apply to Berkeley last fall to double major in Latin American studies and Spanish. But his plans were waylaid, as it became clear that a change in immigration laws was on hold. 

Hearing he wouldn’t gain legal status “was just like a blow on my cheek,” Michel said. “It was like all I hoped for wasn’t happening.” 

Would-be immigrants have also had problems. Melatyar’s sister, Razia Ahmed Gul and her five children, ages 5 to 15, sold all their furniture to prepare for their move to the United States. 

In Fremont, a Bay Area city with a large Afghan community, the Melatyars were excitedly preparing for their relatives’ arrival. 

They cleared two of their four bedrooms and filled them with new mattresses, pillows and sheets. They bought school supplies — backpacks, pens and notebooks — for the children. 

“My mom was very happy she was going to come here,” said Hasib Melatyar, 17, translating for Fauzia Melatyar, who speaks very little English. 

But the attacks delayed the move and put the families in limbo. The San Francisco refugee resettlement agency that is handling the case said the Guls, who are now in Pakistan, may finally arrive later this month. 

“My mom is very worried,” said Melatyar, sitting in the family’s living room, where a television newscast flashed maps of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “She’s just got this one wish, that her sister would come here.”