"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 when they collapsed. Just three days, he was working at Ground Zero.
"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 who, like Mauricio, is an undocumented immigrant.
"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 actually 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, and 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 still has trouble sleeping.
Mauricio currently receives treatment at Mt. Sinai's clinic for World Trade Center workers as part of the Zadroga bill. The Zadroga bill, which turned into one of the ugliest fights the Republicans saw as a few terrible excuses for human beings in the GOP decided to filibuster "healthcare for heroes," is currently running out. While all the survivors complain 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 just ask that we are not forgotten. We need Congress to renew and improve the Zadroga bill, and for Obama to consider us when he writes his executive order," said Mauricio. "They didn't ask what our status was when we showed up to clear the wreckage."
With the Zadroga bill running out, we can expect that the same politicians who will publicly get weepy over 9/11 at memorial services will still stiff those who personally responded to the emergency.