Undocumented orkers at the World Trade Center
By Sasha Polakov-Suransky
AFTER SEEING THE TWIN towers collapse on TV, Maria Flores left the town of Zaragoza in northern to the border, where she paid smugglers to bring her into the United States. Her husband, an undocumented immigrant, had worked as a janitor in the World Trade Center and sent money home to Flores, her four children, and her mother. Flores, who is six months pregnant, arrived in New York on September i4. Her husband is missing and presumed dead, but Flores-who asked that her real name not be used-has little hope of capturing even a small slice of the nearly $1 billion in relief funds that federal, state, and nonprofit agencies have promised to distribute. Unable to prove that her husband was a victim, let alone that he ever existed, she has become increasingly desperate.
When the World Trade Center collapsed, it destroyed the huge informal economy that surrounded it. Eight weeks later, the families of undocumented workers are still struggling to obtain relief. Mayor Rudy Giuliani has vowed to use 'whatever influence I have" to extend aid to the families of those who were killed or left jobless by the attack. Commissioner James W. Ziglar of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has encouraged illegals to come forward and has pledged that the INS "will not seek immigration status information provided to local authorities in the rescue and recovery efforts." But many remain terrified.
Most are reluctant to risk what little security they have as illegal immigrants for a chance at the relief available. Those who do come forward face the sometimes impossible task of proving that they or their family member worked in lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks, a precondition for all benefit programs. Those who can clear that hurdle must confront the grim reality of what the government can actually provide. Most programs operated by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) are not available to illegal immigrants, who are also denied federal-disaster unemployment funds and New York State unemployment benefits. Of all federally administered aid, only noncash benefits and in-kind services are available to undocumented workers. The only exception is emergency Medicaid, which is available through January to everyone who lived or worked below Canal Street, regardless of immigration status.
Other charitable and nonprofit organizations are providing relief to undocumented workers when the government is not. For those who can prove that they lived, worked, or lost a breadwinner in the disaster area, assistance is available from the American Red Cross and Safe Horizon, a nonprofit victim-services organization. The two groups administer a large share of the private funds raised for disaster relief.
AT THE DISASTER-RELIEF CENTER located at 141 Worth Street in Adowntown Manhattan, only blocks from ground zero, the stench of burnt plastic still hangs in the air. Though not as crowded as it was a few weeks ago, this facility still draws a steady stream of applicants, even on a rainy Saturday morning. In what amounts to a social services buffet, the Red Cross and Safe Horizon work alongside two dozen other organizations. The Red Cross says that its policy is to remain neutral and impartial in all of its operations throughout the world, and immigration status is no exception. Here and at the Pier 94 Family Assistance Center, both organizations have provided emergency cash assistance to injured victims, families of the dead, displaced workers, and displaced residents without regard for their immigration status, sometimes piecing together proof of employment through unions or co-workers when employers are unwilling to admit that they employed an illegal immigrant.
Still, both organizations are sensitive to the risks of fraud that comes with disbursing millions of donated dollars (the Red Cross alone has given away more than $150 million since September II). When a lack of information makes it difficult to prove that a deceased undocumented worker was actually employed, the Red Cross is not handing out checks, says spokeswoman Tracy.Gary, but "we're trying to be flexible." Likewise, Safe Horizon spokeswoman Julie Goldscheid says that when it comes to undocumented workers, 'we are trying to be as creative as we can be." Yet some cases remain extremely difficult to prove. Most of the foodservice and maintenance workers without green cards who were employed in and around the towers simply have no proof of employment. They were paid under the table, some had fake Social Security numbers, some had none at all, and still others had completely false identities. When proof exists, many immigrants hesitate to provide it for fear of jeopardizing their already tenuous status with the INS. Others are afraid that applying for any form of aid will brand them a "public charge"-a scarlet letter for those attempting to adjust their immigration status.
Staffers at Asociaci6n Tepeyac, an umbrella group for New York's Mexican organizations and a longtime proponent of immigration reform, know this fear all too well. Tepeyac currently handles 65 cases involving illegal immigrants affected by the attack. According to the organization, the New York State Crime Victims Board turned away 15 such workers when they could not provide Social Security numbers, thus revealing the inability of a bureaucracy to deal with an issue it was not designed to handle but has become impossible to avoid.
Windows on the World, the restaurant that was atop the World Trade Center, is a notable exception among employers in its attempts to address the problems of undocumented workers. Its owner established the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund for relatives of dead employees-many of whom are undocumented-that allows them to bypass the complicated procedure of proving that their loved ones worked there. Most employers, however, are reluctant to admit that they ever hired undocumented workers, even though the INS maintains that, in this case, it won't levy fines against employers for immigration violations. "We don't want to prevent them from identifying those who perished," says an INS spokesman. Nevertheless, many employers are withholding the information that undocumented survivors and the families of the dead so desperately need.
Finally, the issue of fake identity presents the most complex problem of all. According to New York Legal Aid attorney Teresa DeFonso, if undocumented immigrants choose to work with a false Social Security number-often that of a dead person-they tend to work under an alias. This presents a serious problem for family members attempting to claim benefits, who, as DeFonso points out, cannot prove that Mr. X was Mr. Y."
After hearing about Tepeyac during local TV coverage of the September ii attacks, a 15-year-old Guatemalan girl called the organization in desperation. Her mother, who had lived in the United States for eight years, had worked in the twin towers. The i5-year-old did not possess official documents, nor did she know the name of her mother's employer or her address in New York. Lacking the most basic information, the girl was unable to obtain a visa from the U.S. consulate. Until she can appear in person with proof of her mother's employment in the World Trade Center, she cannot receive aid. Tepeyac sent a staff member, Carmina Makar, to interview her in Guatemala and obtain DNA samples, among other things. But as rescue workers sift through the debris in search of any human remains, the prospects of finding a match appear increasingly hopeless.
For Maria Flores, benefits have remained elusive, save for some help from Tepeyac. She has neither a record of her husband's employment nor valid marriage documentation. 'It's very hard," says Tepeyac's Makar. "She's not legally married and the kids, who would be eligible for benefits, don't have his last name. On this case," Makar adds, "no one is helping, not even the Mexican government." Currently staying with four friends and two children in a small apartment, Flores is exhausted by her ordeal. 'They want all sorts of documents I don't have,' she says. She is due to give birth in February, after which she plans to return to Mexico.
According to Esperanza Chacon,
Tepeyac's director of urgent affairs, many undocumented individuals have similar
plans. The crackdown on illegal immigration, farther enshrined in the recently
passed USA Patriot Act, has left them with little hope. Tepeyac has always advocated
amnesty for illegal Mexican immigrants-a policy that seemed promising just days
before September ii. In Chacon's eyes, the loss of the shadow labor force that
is such a fixture of New York life will not only hurt workers but the ciws economy
as well. 'Why don't they give one type of legalization to these people? That
way you know where they are, where they work," she argues. Instead, says
Chacon of the six million to eight million immigrants like Maria Flores's husband
who are living and working in this country illegally, 'they are invisible.'
* SASHA POLAKOW-SURANSKY is an American Prospect writing fellow.