• September 24, 2021

Exclusive: Two decades after Sept. 11, undocumented recovery workers are still fighting for legal status

 Exclusive: Two decades after Sept. 11, undocumented recovery workers are still fighting for legal status

Like in the case of some undocumented immigrants who have helped clean New York City’s subway cars amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the AP reports that undocumented workers who helped in 9/11 recovery were hired by cleaning companies. Many had to do their work without proper protective gear, later developing a variety of health issues. “Some are struggling to cope with how the disaster transformed their lives, saying they are also treated for anxiety, depression and post traumatic disorder,” the report said.

In Anchahua-Herrera’s case, he initially avoided seeking medical care due to his immigration status, instead treating his heartburn and acid reflux with herbs. “It was awful,” he said in the report. He would not seek care until 2011. “I needed medical treatment, a specialist. I also had breathing problems,” he continued. Lucelly Gil also cleared toxic muck from offices and restaurants, telling the AP that she had nightmares after witnessing the recovery of human remains. She would later get compensation after developing breast cancer and other issues. But, no legal status. And while the federal World Trade Center Health Program for sick recovery workers didn’t inquire about immigration status, some may never have accessed it because they simply didn’t know that.

“Instead of giving us some compensation, they could have given us (immigration) papers,” she told the AP. “All of us, all of the Hispanic workers, we saw the consequences of that cleanup work later on.”

The most recent effort to legalize undocumented 9/11 recovery workers appears to be a 2017 bill introduced by former New York Rep. Joe Crowley, which the AP reports could have protected anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 workers. “They served our country when we needed a hand, instead of gratitude, they’re being shown the door,” NBC News reports Crowley said. Among these recovery workers was Carlos Cardona, who faced deportation by the previous administration for a nonviolent conviction from decades ago. He was ultimately pardoned by New York’s former governor. 

Fundamentally, this legislation was a matter of basic decency. But the 9/11 Immigrant Worker Freedom Act, which was also sponsored by Reps. Nydia Velázquez, Adriano Espaillat, and Jerry Nadler, never became law. The AP reports that “[t]he office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated Crowley in midterm election primaries in 2018, told AP it was ‘actively’ exploring the possibility of reintroducing the bill.”

Both the Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency were created in response to Sept. 11. But what the U.S. then neglected to do was permanently protect the undocumented immigrant workers who helped the nation recover from those attacks, instead creating a lawless, deadly immigration enforcement agency that would eventually sweep up those same undocumented immigrant workers, like Carlos Cardona. 

“We need to be remembered,” Luis Soriano told AP. He eventually moved back to Ecuador to help care for his mother. “We were all immigrants who contributed to the U.S,” he continued in the report. “We worked hard there, paid taxes, grew old there. Some cleanup workers I knew died of cancer. We should all be remembered for what we did.” Velázquez told Univision back in 2017 that when undocumented workers like Cardona went to ground zero to help, “ICE wasn’t there, immigration wasn’t there to ask for papers and ask, ‘Are you legal or illegal? You can’t help us in rescuing our fellow human beings.”

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