Brooklyn Fire Reveals Underside of Undocumented Immigrants’ Lives

Immigrant-oriented shops in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn - Photo: hellochris/flickr

Immigrant-oriented shops in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. (Photo: hellochris/flickr)

The fire that killed five Guatemalan immigrants last Saturday when it ravaged a building in the Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood of Bensonhurst has laid bare many of the features of the life of the undocumented in the U.S. It has shown what it means to be incapable of going back home, even after the saddest of family tragedies, and also how a deportation does not always mean permanent removal from this country.

At the center of the tragedy is Guatemalan immigrant Miguel Chan, who lost his wife and had his two-month-old daughter suffer a skull fracture. His two-year-old son apparently was saved by the man who started the fire.

Chan, who is undocumented, is asking local and federal authorities to grant him a humanitarian visa so he can go back to Guatemala to bury his wife and then return to the U.S. to take care of his children here.

It would be God’s blessing, my wish is to bury my wife there,” Chan told Spanish-language newspaper El Diario/La Prensa. According to the paper, he’s been in the country for 16 years.

“My wish is to come back and be with my children. I can’t leave them alone. They cry a lot. They can get sick and can die and then… what would I live for? It’s a promise I made their mother in her last minute of life.”

Chan’s pastor, Rev. Erick Salgado, said he has contacted Brooklyn Councilman Dominic M. Recchia Jr. to ask that he intercede before Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer to help get a visa for the grieving father. (Recchia has also created a victims fund.)

The other victims apparently were four Guatemalan men, among some 20 people who lived in two floors of the building, which had a restaurant on the ground floor. Their official identification was seemingly delayed because of their undocumented status, although The New York Times tracked their families back in their home country.

The other figure at the centre of the drama is alleged arsonist Daniel Ignacio, 29, another Guatemalan who had been convicted of an earlier crime and deported in 2003. According to news reports, he’s believed to have re-entered the U.S. through the Mexican border. He faces deportation again, but if he is convicted of murder and arson charges he would probably spend long years in jail first.

The neighborhood where the fire took place was traditionally an Italian and Jewish enclave. In recent decades other groups arrived, including Russian, Chinese, Pakistani and immigrants from Latin American countries. According to the Daily News, the changes were reflected in the local St. Dominic Catholic church, where the statuette of St. Anthony, who Italians revere, was joined by the Black Christ of Esquipulas, an image Guatemalans venerate.

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