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Families of Sept. 11 Immigrant Victims Seek Compensation - 2002-06-24

Among the victims in the September 11 attacks were 70 low-wage immigrant workers who labored as either janitors or restaurant employees at the World Trade Center. The effort to secure benefits for the families of the immigrants has involved several top New York law firms.

Deborah Brown Sternberg, an attorney at Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, is accustomed to dealing with corporate clients. But for the last few months, her practice has been devoted to helping families from Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Colombia who lost primary wage earners in the World Trade Center attack.

Some, she says, are parents who were living in Latin America on money sent by their sons. Others are wives and children who were living in the United States - some legally, some illegally - on wages their husbands earned at the World Trade Center.

"I find myself not calling them clients," Ms. Sternberg said, "I call them my family. Someone just went to work one day and did not come back, and all of a sudden, people who did not have any experience dealing with financial matters, here they are with such bravery, coming forward, meeting with lawyers and trying to rebuild their lives."

The effort to help the immigrant families was spearheaded by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a non-profit group that offers free legal assistance to the poor. Spokesman Michael Rothenberg says the procedure that had to be followed to get financial compensation was so complicated, he felt the families needed legal assistance.

"English is a second language for most of the families, and to negotiate the system, figure out the paper work, the issues you are dealing with can be quite difficult," Mr. Rothenberg commented, "There might be a dependent who is living in another country. Some of the victim's family members might be" living in the United States illegally.

As a result of the legal effort, Michael Rothenberg says, it appears that the immigrant families will get their fair share of the funds. And, he says, they have not been the only beneficiaries. He says many of the lawyers have found the personal relationships very rewarding. "With each new challenge they have been there with the family member, so I think it is a stark contrast to what they do on a daily basis," Rothenberg said of those lawyers assisting immigrant families, "Most represent large corporations.

Attorney Deborah Brown Sternberg says the experience has enriched her life, and expanded her goals, as well. She signed on initially to help the families get their money. Now, she says, she is working to get legal status and working papers for the wives and mothers of victims, so they can carry on.