"Are you worried that your deportation would be a death sentence?" I asked. "Yes," said Mauricio Avila. Mauricio had told me what it was like to be in downtown Manhattan on 9/11: he watched in disbelief as the second airplane hit the towers, and ran from falling rubble when they collapsed. Just three days later, he was working at Ground Zero.
If you think about it, even briefly, it shouldn't be surprising that undocumented immigrants were working at Ground Zero. It was an urgently needed construction project, and there were still too many people buried alive to bring in the heavy excavators that would certainly die under the weight of both the excavators and the rubble they moved: we desperately needed hands, and weren't too picky about whom they belonged to. "They didn't ask what our status was when we showed up to clear the wreckage," said Mauricio.
"For around a week or so we heard people screaming for help inside the rubble, then we heard nothing. My crew once found a foot: nothing else, just a foot inside a boot. The bodies rotted in the September heat, and the smell was pretty bad when we were moving the parts of bodies that we found," said another worker too nervous to be named that, like Mauricio, is an undocumented immigrant who worked at Ground Zero just after 9/11.
"They didn't ask us what our immigration status was, they just said that they needed help and a lot of it. You'd find people working 12 hour shifts to clear the wreckage and bodies. I brought my own mask because I was a licensed asbestos worker and asked my supervisor what filter to use. He told me to put the mask away, that the EPA had said the air was safe to breathe. I trusted him," continued Avila.
In addition to the toxins, Ground Zero was a dangerous workplace: Mauricio fell, and now has several screws in his spinal column. Because of the environmental hazards the EPA failed to warn him of, he has laryngitis, asthma, severe stomach problems and sinusitis. He got off almost light compared to his wife, who has much of the above, as well as throat cancer. The nature of the work, toiling in 12 hour shifts in the burning wreckage of what once was familiar skyline to pull pieces of former neighbors out has affected him, and he now struggles with depression and has nightmares and trouble sleeping.
Mauricio currently receives treatment at Mt. Sinai's clinic for World Trade Center workers as part of the Zadroga bill, though this bill only lasts until the end of September. The Zadroga bill turned into one of the ugliest fights the Republicans saw as a few creatures that certainly cannot get into heaven in the GOP decided to filibuster "healthcare for heroes." While all the survivors point out that it does not help them with everything, it has been keeping many of them alive.
"If I was deported, I would not be able to receive treatment at the clinic," said Mauricio. "Currently I am on a lot of different medications that help keep me alive: if I was sent back to Ecuador, I would not be able to get them."
Mauricio represents a lot of undocumented workers, so many in fact that I was recently at an immigration clinic specifically for 9/11 Ground Zero workers. Talking with the survivors, they all say the same thing: some of us have already died from the work we did at Ground Zero, and all of us are sick. That's because they were breathing in benzene from 90,000 tons of jet fuel, mercury from more than half a million fluorescent lights, 200,000 pounds of lead and cadmium from computers, crystalline silica from 420,000 tons of concrete, plasterboard and pulverized glass, in addition to many other contaminants. Not only was the air they breathed highly carcinogenic, but the dust from the debris was literally cutting up their lungs as they breathed it.
"We need Congress to renew and improve the Zadroga bill, and for Obama to consider us," said Mauricio.
It's a frightening prospect for the survivors: years to figure out a solution have come and gone, and yet the only real change is that there are fewer survivors, and the ones left are getting sicker. Their voices are fading, along with political momentum to use 9/11 for anything but fighting against the deal with Iran, and even that line is very faded.
Last time it was up for renewal, Zadroga fought against the same familiar talking points about not raising taxes to fund it, and we can expect this to be even louder as the GOP spins further from the center of American politics.
With the Zadroga bill ending at the end of the month, we can expect the same politicians who get publicly weepy at 9/11 memorial services to go ahead and stiff those who personally responded to the emergency. As a nation, giving benefits to all those who were injured at Ground Zero should be a no-brainer, but this Congress can't even get that right.
Something to remember leading up to an election.