Advocates Say Illegal Workers Suffer After 9/11 Cleanup

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

Jose Moncada watched the World Trade Center towers tumble, and, like so many Americans, felt a patriotic urge to help rescue survivors and rebuild after Sept. 11. "It was my time to put my hand on my heart," he said. "It was my time to help somebody."

It did not matter to him that he was an illegal immigrant from Honduras. And that did not seem to matter to supervisors who oversaw the retrieval of human remains and the removal of toxic debris at Ground Zero. They welcomed Moncada and thousands of other illegal immigrants, no questions asked.

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.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants worked at Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11. Immigration advocates claim it was thousands.

And now, as the workers have become sick, partisans on both sides cast their plight in moral terms.

"After 9/11, everybody responded with their heart," said Carmen Calderón, coordinator of Sept. 11 immigrant outreach for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. "Immigrants died in those towers. They wanted to be part of the recovery of this nation."

But 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."

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."

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.

Volunteers searched for survivors but found only pieces of remains.

"They had 100 people on one side, 50 people on the other, a big long line. We had to remove all the dust and the debris, the steel and metal. The machines couldn't do it because the vibrations caved everything in, so they worked by hand," Moncada said.

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