Sunday, October 08, 2006

Immigrants Veterans of Ground Zero: Suffering, Forgotten and Dismissed

The more you peal down the layers of tragedy from 9/11, particularly of the tens of thousands who worked on the World Trade Center rescue and cleanup following the 9/11 attack, the more depressing it gets. Aside from the mounting evidence of serious health effects being suffered by the veterans of the "pile," more and more information is coming out about the thousands of undocumented immigrants who are now experiencing 9/11-related health problems, but who are not getting help, and who remain under continued attack due to their immigration status.

One was Jose Moncada, an immigrant from Honduras who worked for a contractor retrieving human remains and removing toxic debris.
Working on the pile for 10 days, Moncada breathed in thick dust, grainy asbestos and foul-smelling gases driven by an angry downtown wind. Now, five years later, he suffers from a hacking cough, nosebleeds, wheezing breath and life-threatening respiratory illnesses that also trouble thousands of legal U.S. residents who worked there.

Moncada said fires were still burning on the streets when he showed up to volunteer in September 2001. "No one asked for papers or anything," he said. He worked with others who spoke Spanish.


Two years later, Moncada started to feel tired. Then he felt pain.

"My nose hurts every time I breathe," he said. "My vision is very bad. My breathing is very bad. A doctor gave me Tylenol and Advil.

"I don't want to speak to anybody. I want to stay home. I feel depressed. I can't sleep very well at night. Every day I wake up and I do nothing. I don't know what is happening to my system, my body."
Anti-immigrant activists have little sympathy:
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes immigration increases, expressed regret for illegal immigrants who fell sick after working at Ground Zero but said they should not have been allowed to enter the country illegally.

"It tells us how harmful it is to have a policy that winks at illegal immigration and gives status to illegal aliens,"
Krikorian said. "If they present themselves to authorities, they should be sent home. It makes people squeamish to say this because of what happened. But this is a result of the ridiculous situation we've put ourselves in."
Carmen Calderón, coordinates the Sept. 11 immigrant outreach for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, which has been spearheading an effort to reach out to the victims of the cleanup.
when a backlash developed against the huge wave of illegal immigration, "they changed the DMV laws, and a lot of asbestos workers lost their licenses because they couldn't get a picture ID," Calderón said. "A lot of them are sick now, without work. They've lost their insurance. They lost their incomes. They lost everything."

Workers were paid about $19 an hour, toiling for up to 16 hours a day. They were given buckets, mops, rags and little protective equipment as they cleared away glass, metal, dust and waste from downtown buildings that were not destroyed, advocates said.

"The ladies were smaller, so they put them in the air ducts, huge pipes," Calderón said. "They crawled in to wipe down the pipes with no masks, no gloves, nothing, not even a change of clothes."
NYCOSH estimates that thousands of immigrants from China, Honduras, Russia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico worked at the site.
"For low-income immigrant communities where health insurance is scarce . . . this disaster magnified an already desperate situation," Calderón said. "Their choice is concrete. Do I pay my rent? Do I buy medicine? Do I put food on the table? These choices are obviously choices that some victims of Sept. 11 have to make."
Others have moved or gone back home.