UNDOCUMENTED LATINOS WHO WORKED IN THE CLEAN-UP AND THE RESCUE OF 9/11 SUFFER FROM CHRONIC DISEASES AND FEAR OF BEING DEPORTED 16 YEARS AFTER THE TERRORISTS ATTACKS
Everyday Rosa Espinosa changes the plastic sheet which protects her mattress of her bed due to the urinary incontinence she suffers from. In 2007, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by the toxic particles she inhaled during the four months while she worked as a volunteer in the rescue and cleaning-up activities of the (WTC) World Trade Center in New York.
Despite the surgery and the subsequent treatment, the cancer came back again in 2010. On her nightstand, a breathing device protects her sleep since a few years. There are also more than twenty jars of pills she cannot do without, since they control her asthma, reflux, sinusitis and other respiratory problems.
Espinosa arrived in New York in 1999 coming from Ecuador leaving two small sons behind. In her country, she had studied for assistant nurse and in the Big Apple she was looking for a better future for her sons and to continue her education in the medical field. The dream was becoming true until September 11, 2001, the City came to a standstill. With the fear in her body but self-assured, Espinosa made it to Ground Zero and that same night she worked as a volunteer. It was her vocation that made her do it. She helped as a rescuer, cleaning rubble, distributing food and a countless number of other things.
“There were a lot of people who were still injured asking for help and many people dead,” says Espinosa, who is 53 years old without being able to hold back her tears when she remembers.
Espinosa is small and slant-eyed with dark eyes that are always tearful. While she describes how those weeks were, she is looking for and looking again for her volunteer ID of the WTC in an old suitcase. Among the papers, the first ultrasound that diagnosed her tumor turns up.
“There was a humaneness... There were immigrants, white people, black people, all together. Race and language were not important, we communicated through gestures. Words were not necessary because what united us, was our heart. Nobody asked for our papers, only our effort,” added Espinosa.
With the stress of those days, Espinosa did not know that she was about to bear her third child. It was not until four months later when she went to the doctor worried about continuous respiratory problems, when they informed her about her pregnancy. Her son Steven was born with asthma, sinusitis and mental health problems.
Espinosa formed part of a group of an estimated more than 3,000 undocumented immigrants who worked during the first months after the collapse of the towers, both in reconstruction and clean-up of the WTC.
Currently, Espinosa is registered for the health program of the WTC, which offers sanitary assistance, check-ups and financial compensations to the rescuers, cleaning workers and volunteers who helped after the attacks. It was established through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, signed by president Barack Obama in 2010 and reactivated in 2015 until 2090.
“Nobody told us that the air was toxic and they only gave us paper masks which instantly turned black,” said Espinosa. “I never imagined that every day I inhaled that air little by little, I was contaminating my body and my baby.”
A week after the attacks, on September 18, 2001, the US Environmental Protection Agency declared that the air and the water at Ground Zero were perfectly healthy.
However, the time and the numerous amount of analysis that were carried out, show that the destruction of the WTC was one of the worst environmental disasters of the City’s history, in accordance with studies performed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health in 2007. Apart from the initial 3,000 deaths, more than 400,000 rescuers, volunteers, local residents and passers-by were exposed to the environmental contamination. In September 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health added 50 types of cancer (which later on increased) to the list of health conditions related to the WTC under the Health Program of James Zadroga of 9/11. In the studies that were performed, more than 70 potentially cancerous substances were found in the smoke and dust of the scene of the WTC.
Nora Treviño, a Colombian of 62-year-old, cannot live a minute without air-conditioning, or she gets suffocated. Both in winter and summer, if the air-conditioning is not turned on, her respiration becomes troubled and slow, and she is unable to talk. Twice a day, she needs oxygen and a respiratory device in order to sleep. She takes more than 20 pills and is unable to work. With the shortness of breath, she lies down with difficulty in her bed and she pulls up her flowered dress to show her swollen legs. Over time she has more difficulties walking.
She started working at the WTC on September 17 and stayed until March 2002. She never received any warning about the toxicity and the only protection that was provided to her, were latex gloves and paper masks.
“They asked us... ‘Who wants to do a shift?’, ‘Who wants to do a shift and a half?’...and you know that when there is a job, you must take the advantage and at times we did two shifts. They paid me $60 for eight hours. I worked this way until March 2 of the following year,” said Treviño.
Despite the fact that there are no exact numbers of the number of undocumented workers who participated in the activities of reconstruction and clean-up, published studies by the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine confirm that the majority were first generation immigrants coming from Colombia, Ecuador and Poland. In any case, they lacked the adequate training to deal with the toxics and they had little or no knowledge of English. The organizations for the defense of the workers admit that there are various thousands of undocumented workers. The Frente Hispano Local 79 and the Frente Unido Ecuatoriano confirm that there are union members of more than 3,000 undocumented immigrants with health problems caused by the collapse of the towers.
Rubiela Arias, a Colombian of 51 years old, worked during eight months in the clean-up of the adjacent buildings of the WTC and is currently the representative of the organization of Hazardous Materials Workers World Trade Center, an organization that protects the rights of the workers who worked in the clean-up of the WTC.
The company that hired her, according to Arias, provided her with an ID card and never requested her documents. “Every day, they signed at the entrance and exit, but they never asked me about my migratory status. In order to enter in the health program, I had to show that I worked there, presenting my ID card of the company that hired me,” said Arias.
Many undocumented immigrants did not register for the health programs out of fear of being deported and that is one of the reasons why they were never documented. They did not know that they did not need to show their migratory status in order to sign up and the limited knowledge of English made the information inaccessible for thousands of people.
The lack of registers of these workers by the companies that hired them, has also enormously hindered that these people are able to participate in the health programs of the WTC or the compensations of the Zadroga, not having the documents that prove that they worked at the WTC. In many cases, the companies that hired them did not want to provide the registration forms in order to avoid any payments of compensations for damages.
HEROES WITHOUT ANY RIGHTS
In the last few months, the fear has returned to the lives of all the undocumented workers of 9/11 due to the new migratory measurements of president Trump. Last June, the congressman for New York, Joseph Crowley, led a successful campaign to stop the deportation of Carlos Cardona, a resident of Queens who helped in the clean-up of the WTC. Likewise, past July 9, the congressman Crowley announced a new legislative proposal, called “9/11 Immigrant Worker Freedom Act” which will protect more than 3,000 undocumented people of all nationalities who worked in the rescue and clean-up of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, according to the office of the congressman.
“These workers provided basic services (...) and suffered exposure to toxins transmitted by the air and other dangers. However, many of them still lack legal immigration options and have lived in the fear of deportation from the country they have served,” confirms the congressman Crowley when he submitted the law at the doors of the City Hall of New York.
The law would be a glimmer of hope for Espinosa, Treviño and thousands of more people. The deportation, however, would put an end to their medical treatments. In their home countries, it would be hard for them to pay for them and the lack of medications would end their lives. Their change of migratory status would provide them, apart from the possibility to fight for their financial compensations, with access to housing and many other rights they have been denied due to lack of documents.
For most of them, September 11 keeps on being a difficult day for them. The post-traumatic stress and the anxiety accompanies them all the days of their lives, but when the anniversary gets closer, the memories come together in their heads preventing them to go on with their lives. They cannot erase the nightmarish images of which they were witnesses from their minds.
Every one of them lives through the anniversary their own way. Some of them participate in the official ceremonies at Ground Zero and others prefer to take refuge in their own homes waiting for the day to go by. One point they all agree on is that this did not only change their health, but also their way of being and that they have been unable to forget.