07/15/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Immigration and Dying 9/11 Ground Zero Workers

The fight over the Zadroga bill was viscerally ugly, with legislators screaming at the podium, and rightfully so: Some people were foolish enough to filibuster health care for 9/11 Ground Zero workers, and they received backlash from everyone from New York Republicans like U.S. Rep. Peter King to Jon Stewart. This is because everyone involved at Ground Zero, those who were there on 9/11 and those who toiled for months to clear our nation's economic and cultural capitol of the wreckage of that day, were regarded as having done a vital service to their nation in the shadow of my generation's defining tragedy. The ultimately watered-down Zadroga bill running out in 2016 is only one of the complications faced by hundreds of undocumented immigrants who worked to clear the still-smouldering wreckage at Ground Zero.

"Looking at Texas Task Force 1 standing at Ground Zero, going through that rubble and their heroism, themselves, they went there to save survivors, not to raise taxes," said Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who tried to explain why those who had served at Ground Zero should not have the government pay for their health care. For survivors of Ground Zero work, this was treatment that they had almost become used to from the GOP: They grandstanded and fundraised on the backs of 9/11 victims, and on issues like a mosque being too close to Ground Zero being insensitive to workers and victims. Their filibuster successfully delayed desperately needed medical relief for these same victims.

"Many of us worked in the toxic smoke and dust," explained Jose, an undocumented Ground Zero worker who spoke to me on the condition of not using his name. What he was working in was 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 glass; and tons of 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.

These workers were out there with no protective gear because Christine Todd Whitman, an inept George W. Bush appointee to the EPA, as well as other members of the government, told these workers that the air was safe when it clearly was not. Since then, a Mount Sinai report has found that 70 percent of the almost 10,000 Ground Zero workers surveyed had new or worsened respiratory illness symptoms since 9/11.

When these workers predictably needed health care because of their exposure to toxins as a direct result of their work, the aforementioned political fireworks were sparked. Although many of those affected will need health care for the rest of their lives, the Zadroga bill is set to run out in 2016. Many of the illnesses associated with the breathing of the debris (such as various forms of cancer) will not manifest for over a decade.

"We are contaminated with the chemicals and burning bodies that were still smoking, and there are already members of my community diagnosed with serious illnesses," said Jose. "We need health care because we don't have it. We have access to Mount Sinai hospital, but the services are limited, and we have several health issues that are not being taken care of."

In addition to the trauma and health effects suffered by all Ground Zero workers, and on top of the usual stresses of being undocumented (e.g., the threat of deportation), undocumented workers face unique challenges: "After 9/11, the undocumented asbestos workers lost their license because the law changed," shared Jose, who explained how difficult it is trying to work while being undocumented and sick. "Because we don't have status, we are not able to get a license, so many of us are sick and out of a job. We want to be able to adjust our status so we can get licensed and work again."

"We didn't care what the air quality was; we just wanted to work, to help our city and provide for our families," said Jose. "We still want to work."

While the Obama administration has announced that it has begun working to craft an executive order on immigration, there is still no clue as to whether or not this will benefit Ground Zero workers like Jose. If Obama does grant them relief, will the GOP fight back against assistance for 9/11 Ground Zero workers again?