9/11 Responders Bill is Not Controversial -- Illegal Immigrants Were Heroes, Too

By now, many of you have seen Queens and Brooklyn Rep. Anthony Weiner lambaste Republicans, both on the floor of Congress and on MSNBC's Morning Joe. Weiner's beef? Only twelve Republicans voted for what seemed to Democrats a no-brainer, bi-partisan, non-controversial bill to provide 9-years-overdue health care to the heroes who responded at 9/11, many of whom continue to suffer long-term health problems, especially lung-related, as a result of their work at Ground Zero.

Apparently, one excuse Republicans used for not backing the bill was that some of its budget would provide health care to illegal immigrants who also attempted rescue operations at the time of our national tragedy. Weiner argues that the Republicans have made even the most sacrosanct of national events an opportunity for political obstructionism and petty arguments. Joe Scarborough argues that Democrats should have got the bill through without Republican support, as they did health care.

Democrats should not have had to get this bill through on their own. 9/11 was the single largest attack on U.S. soil, killing 3,000 Americans of every color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age and level of physical ability. Those who responded to this tragedy with total disregard for their own personal safety are unequivocally American heroes. And yes, some illegal immigrants rank among those heroes. I saw them with my own eyes.

Shortly after the attack, I rushed down from Yale, where I attended graduate school, to my native Tribeca which, only a few days before, had sat in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Despite their protestations that I not risk a terrorist attack on the Metro-North trains, I knew I had to hug my parents in the flesh, to reassure myself that they were really alive. Army tanks, crushed cars, sleeping bags and search dogs lined Greenwich Street, where I had once learned to ride a bike and had climbed the jungle gym in Washington Market Park. I connected with the staff at Yaffa's restaurant - then a kind of living room for Tribecans - making myself as useful as I could to firemen, police officers, National Guardsmen and other rescue workers. I recruited a group of young neighbors to Yaffa's basement kitchen, where we made as many sandwiches as we could, to try in vain to fill the void in our hearts. Under that twisted heap of smoking rubble down the street, we feared thousands of living people remained trapped. We found out later that the last survivors had been pulled out the day before.

I remember the besmirched faces of the guys you couldn't touch, the ones fresh from digging in the pit, whose gaze made them seem as if they'd just emerged from Hell. I remember the stench that hung in the air and clung to our clothes. At the end of the day, we'd all gather in Yaffa's, and these giant rocks of men would cry on the shoulders of us young volunteers -- like the Newark fireman who lamented, "I dug for eight hours. The dogs were barkin' like there's all this DNA there, but all I found was a helmet. Every one was just blown to dust."

I also remember an even more startling site. When all the "legit" heroes went home, new teams arrived to replace them, searching and digging through the night. Because I'd befriended so many of the authorities guarding the perimeter of Ground Zero, I was granted access past certain barricades. In a kind of crazed crusade, I continued to try to deliver sandwiches past dusk. In the twilight made deep purple by the dust of the dead, I offered my tray of sandwiches to what looked like a phalanx of recent Latin-American immigrants, whose brown Indio faces warded me off. More than refusing my sandwiches, their deep black eyes exhorted me, "Do not see us. We are invisible." I wondered how little they were paid for digging all night in the toxic rubble, who had hired them, and who else knew about them.

If you join the American military, doesn't the U.S. grant you citizenship for your service? If you dig for the dead on the occasion of our nation's greatest tragedy, are you not serving this country? If you suffer health problems as a result, do you not deserve to receive care, citizenship or no?

Even with both citizens and non-citizens included in its language, the 9/11 Responders Health Care Bill deserves unequivocal support from both sides of the aisle. It is a no-brainer.