Families Of Undocumented Victims Of Orlando Face Unique Challenges Families of the 49 dead in the Orlando shooting are holding services, saying good-bye and arranging to bring bodies back home. But what happens if the person killed was living in the U.S. illegally?
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Families Of Undocumented Victims Of Orlando Face Unique Challenges

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Families Of Undocumented Victims Of Orlando Face Unique Challenges

Families Of Undocumented Victims Of Orlando Face Unique Challenges

Families Of Undocumented Victims Of Orlando Face Unique Challenges

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/482668952/482668953" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Families of the 49 dead in the Orlando shooting are holding services, saying good-bye and arranging to bring bodies back home. But what happens if the person killed was living in the U.S. illegally?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Of the 49 people who were murdered in the Orlando dance club a week ago today, two were undocumented Mexican citizens. For families already grieving, they face additional challenge because of their relatives' immigration status. NPR's John Burnett introduces us to the family of one Orlando victim who lived in the shadows.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Mourners spill out onto the sidewalk at a modest funeral home in a strip center in central Orlando. On this sticky, humid night, they're attending the wake, or velorio, for Joel Rayon Paniagua. The 31-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, was foreman of a crew that works beside Florida highways, picking up trash and cutting the grass under the sweltering summer sun, the kind of work, as they say, that no one else wants to do. His friends say Joel loved tacos de pollo, his Catholic church and dancing to cumbia music. He had two favorite sayings.

NICOLAS: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "One was you have to live every day like it's your last," says his brother Nicolas. "And the other was never say you can't. Always remain positive."

Nicolas and other close friends and family are wearing T-shirts showing the handsome face of his dead brother next to the words, you will always live in our hearts. Funerals are happening all over central Florida these days, as well as in Puerto Rico where many of the victims are from. They're deeply sad rituals, but legally uncomplicated - not so with Joel Rayon.

ISAAC: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "It causes lots of sadness because if you're undocumented and you die in this country, you don't have the same rights as we do back home," says another brother at the funeral whose name is Isaac. "But lately," he adds, "this country has supported us a lot."

Because of the extraordinary circumstances of the Pulse bloodbath, the United States quickly granted a humanitarian visa to Joel's loved ones in Mexico. They have seven days here to tend to his death and escort the body back to his birthplace of Cordoba, Veracruz.

Moreover, a Florida crime victim's assistance fund is donating $7,500 in funeral expenses, and airlines are giving them free airfare and cargo space. Finally, because Joel was the victim of a violent crime in this country, his survivors from Mexico are eligible to apply for a special visa called a U visa that can lead to legal residency.

JUAN SABINES: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Under ordinary circumstances, it would be a big advantage for the family to have the chance to apply for this special visa," says Juan Sabines, the Mexican consul in Orlando. "But unfortunately, in this case, it's a tragedy for them."

The consulate is helping the families of the Mexicans killed in the shooting. Joel Rayon has a big family back in Mexico. His kid brother Isaac is the only sibling who lives here in Orlando. He works construction and, like his brother, is here illegally. Isaac wishes he could return with his family for the burial in Veracruz, but he knows if he leaves he won't be able to return. And he knows they need him here.

ISAAC: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "I have to stay here to keep supporting my mom, my grandparents and my brothers and sisters," says Isaac, his face sad and expressionless. Now that my brother is gone, I'm the only one left here in U.S. Everyone depends on me.

It's 9 o'clock, and the wake is supposed to be ending. But people are staying. They're still viewing the open coffin to look at Joel's movie star face one last time. They're still out here under the awning remembering their beloved friend. His brother Isaac offers one last thought on this dreadful week.

ISAAC: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We never imagined there would be a massacre here," he says, looking out at the darkened city. "I was very surprised this happened. I thought this country had lots of security, this country where everybody wants to be. It's not as secure as everybody thinks."

ISAAC: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Orlando.

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