After seeing the twin towers collapse on TV, Maria Flores left the town of
Zaragoza in northern Mexico and made her way 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 14. 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 downtown
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 11). 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
Staffers at Asociación 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 11
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 15-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
According to Esperanza Chacon, Tepeyac's director of urgent affairs, many
undocumented individuals have similar plans. The crackdown on illegal
immigration, further 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 11. 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 city's 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."