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Four who helped catch subway attack suspect now need help themselves

In this photo provided by Will B Wylde, people are were on a subway platform during the attack, in the Brooklyn last month.Will B. Wylde/Associated Press

NEW YORK — After New York’s worst subway attack in decades, a Mexican woman who had been on the ill-fated train gave police her cellphone to retrieve videos of the chaos. She was living in the country illegally.

The next day, the suspect, Frank James, walked by three men upgrading surveillance cameras at a hardware store in the East Village in Manhattan. They flagged down police officers. They were a Mexican immigrant living in the country illegally, a Lebanese student, and an American-born Syrian who had fled civil war and left his parents behind.

Authorities have credited all four with helping to capture James, who is charged with opening fire inside an N train on April 12 in Brooklyn, leaving dozens of people hurt. Now, the helpers are seeking protection from the nation’s immigration system.

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“We are proud of what we did,” said Zack Tahhan, 22, the Syrian American whose ecstatic retelling of the suspect’s capture made him a viral sensation. “But now we are worried about our families.”

The helpers and their lawyers are in the early stages of applying for visas set aside for victims, witnesses and informants who help law enforcement, and determining whether they can access alternatives like humanitarian parole or political asylum.

Their lawyers say aiding their clients would help to rebuild trust among Muslims and immigrants after years of heightened hostility toward them under President Donald Trump. More than one-third of New York’s 8.8 million inhabitants are immigrants, including 500,000 people living in the country illegally, according to city statistics. More than 760,000 residents are Muslim.

“Any sign of mutual trust between those authorities and communities could certainly go some way,” said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at Washington’s nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Rifat Harb, a lawyer, represents Tahhan in his quest to be reunited with his parents, who are refugees in Turkey. He said the United States should emulate other countries that swiftly welcomed immigrants who performed heroic deeds.

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“Something like this needs to get the same appreciation,” he said.

He cited France’s decision to grant citizenship to a Malian who became known as the Spider-Man of Paris in 2018 after he climbed the facade of an apartment building to save a toddler dangling from a fourth-floor balcony. In 2020, Spain granted residency to a Senegalese street vendor who saved a disabled man from a burning building.

Such a shortcut seems unlikely in the United States. Since 2007, lawmakers have introduced 505 so-called private bills to grant citizenship or permanent residency to individuals, but only three have been enacted, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigrants living in the country illegally, even war veterans, have been far more likely to face deportation.

City officials and federal authorities declined to comment on specific cases when contacted by The New York Times.

Luis Gomez Alfaro, an immigration lawyer who represents two of the four subway helpers, said he hoped Mayor Eric Adams’ administration would be more assertive in nudging federal immigration officials on behalf on their clients.

“We really want the city to spearhead this, because the honors keep coming,” he said. “But as far as the actual help, we’re still waiting.”

Although New York's leaders resisted Trump’s policies, the city was still affected by them. Brooklyn's neighborhood of Sunset Park — where the subway attack occurred — became a battleground in 2019 when neighbors thwarted deportation raids targeting migrant families from Central America.

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It is also where the woman who recorded the aftermath of the shooting lives with her husband and two daughters. She asked to be identified only by her last name, Flores, because she fears deportation.

Last month, Flores, 37, dropped her younger daughter at school and boarded an N train at 59th Street in Brooklyn, headed to work on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She chose the second car because she was heavily pregnant and tired, and she wanted a seat where she could nap.

Soon, smoke filled the air, and she held her breath. A man laughed and said they were all going to die. There were booms as other commuters ran toward her side of the car, she said.

“In that moment, I only felt that fear inside of me,” she said. “I got my phone, and I started to record some videos.”

Sharing the recordings with the police might have seemed like an ordinary act, but doing so was bold for Flores, who is subject to a deportation order issued after immigration officers raided an Amtrak train she was riding in 2000. Flores said she never received a hearing notice and found out only years later.

After the shooting, though, all she could think about was her unborn child.

“I wanted him to be well,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about, ‘Oh, something will happen to me if I speak with them.’”

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Her lawyer, Gomez Alfaro, plans to ask an immigration court in Buffalo, New York, to lift the order of removal and said he is optimistic because of recent federal guidance to end deportation cases against people with no criminal history.

But, he said, the city must expedite paperwork supporting her application for a U visa, reserved for victims of crimes including assault and attempted murder. Applicants must submit a certification to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services from a law-enforcement agency, confirming that they helped with the investigation.

From 2019-21, New York law-enforcement agencies issued 1,709 U visa certification requests, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Some 407 were denied, and 264 were referred to other agencies.

The New York Police Department handles most of them. If the criminal case the applicant helped with is still pending in court, the department sends the requests to the office prosecuting the case.

Even those whose certification requests get approved face years of waiting. Congress limits U visas to 10,000 annually, and there is a five-year backlog.

Sam Stanton, a policy adviser in the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said that although the program is flawed, it is a lifeline for the most vulnerable and dispels mistrust.

Adams has hailed the helpers as heroes, handing them proclamations at a ceremony at police headquarters. Later, at a City Hall event honoring Mexican Americans on Cinco de Mayo, he highlighted Francisco Puebla’s role.

Puebla, the manager of Saifee Hardware and Garden where Tahhan and Mohamad Cheikh worked, was directing the camera installers when James walked by. Puebla said he hesitated to call the police, but when a cruiser stopped at a red light, they alerted officers.

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Gomez Alfaro, the lawyer, said Puebla’s role could make him eligible for an S visa for informants, but only 250 are available each year. Humanitarian parole is another option, but it would not provide a path to citizenship or permanent residency.

Puebla, who immigrated 22 years ago to escape poverty, said he wants residency to raise his two sons and start a hardware business without constant fear of deportation.

“Because I helped them, what are they going to do for me?” he said. “Is it just going to be the recognition that I get from Mayor Adams?”

The family of Tahhan, 22, the Brooklyn-born son of Syrian migrants, returned home when he was an infant. At 13, he said, he was helping to pull neighbors from bombed-out buildings in Aleppo, some dead, some alive, some in pieces. When he remembers, he looks at his hands as if their blood is still there.

Forces fighting for the country’s president came for him, but he slipped away to Turkey. When he turned 18, he came to the United States alone and eventually landed the job installing cameras.

He is applying for green cards for his parents and younger brother. Tahhan, who left school in the sixth grade because of the war, wants to work helping people, perhaps as a firefighter or a police officer.

His co-worker, Cheikh, a student from Lebanon, worries that he has drawn the attention of Hezbollah, a militant group wary of Western influence.

“They might see me as an informant,” Cheikh said.

Harb, who is also Cheikh’s lawyer, said he may be eligible for asylum because his circumstances have changed. “He would be interrogated if he goes back,” Harb said.

Cheikh finished his master’s degree in computer engineering at City College last fall and delayed his return to Lebanon to take advantage of training allowed under his student visa. He had applied to study in the United States at the urging of his father, who talked endlessly of his love for the country.

“I hope whatever I did can help fix this situation,” Cheikh said. “I would love to become a citizen of this country. I would love for my family to live here. That is my dream.”