NEW YORK - Pedro learned through a friend that people – both documented and undocumented – were needed to clean up Ground Zero. Pedro is an undocumented Colombian and did not want us to use his last name.
"We started working at 100 Church Street, right next to Ground Zero. From up high we could see them removing corpses," he said. "I remember the clouds of smoke, the dead, the burning smell. It's difficult to describe that overpowering smell."
Three weeks after the September 11th attacks, Pedro was hired by one company, and then subcontracted by another. He was paid $8 an hour to clean apartments. He started working during the third week of September and toiled between eight and 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week, until January of 2002.
In the days following the terrible day of September 11th, government officials said that the air was not contaminated, that nobody would get sick from being exposed to the dust around Ground Zero, and that everyone was safe there.
What Pedro and thousands of others who helped in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup of Ground Zero did not know was that other enemies remained in the air – asbestos, lead, polyurethane, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, among others – toxic chemicals, which since that time have tormented the workers' bodies.
"Once in a while they gave us coveralls, but we never used anything. Sometimes [we were given] a mask but without a filter," said Pedro, who at 47 suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, asthma, nasal discharge, exhaustion, and asphyxia due to respiratory problems.
"The truth is that I never thought I would get sick, that it was so serious."
According to a spokesperson from the Centers for Disease Control, since 2009 some 51,120 people have registered in a tracking and treatment program for illnesses related to 9/11. The program does not ask about immigration status.
But of all those people, about 3,000 were undocumented, said Oscar Paredes, director of the Latin American Workers' Project. In October 2001, he went to Ground Zero to help workers who were complaining that they weren't getting paid. He ended up advocating for their subsequent health issues.
"I asked them what conditions they were working in. I asked them if they were given masks and they said no. Did they have overalls? No. Did they have helmets? No. And finally I asked them if they had showers, water, if they washed their hands before eating, and if they went home in the same clothing that they worked in. That really scared me," he said.
Paredes was referring to the federal laws on working with dangerous materials, which require that employers protect their employees. This wasn't the case for the workers – and especially not the undocumented – said Paredes.
Congressman Jerry Nadler (D-District 8), who represents Lower Manhattan, along with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-District14) and others, gave a speech to the House of Representatives on September 18th, 2007. They fought for the long-term tracking of 9/11 workers. Nadler said that, "Thousands of people are sick; that shouldn't be."
"Thousands of people are sick because the administration lied. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration failed to do its job," he declared. "Someone made the deliberate decision to not enforce the laws on safety and occupational health."
As a result, many 9/11 workers, including undocumented individuals, did not receive adequate protection and began to get sick, sometimes at once, sometimes weeks later, and sometimes months after.
According to experts on occupational medicine from the World Trade Center tracking and treatment program and from the New York City Department of Health, there could still be new cases waiting to be discovered.
But the case of undocumented workers is different.
The undocumented workers do not have health insurance and some of them can't prove that they worked at Ground Zero. Moreover, they have appointments at the hospital with psychologists because they suffer from exhaustion and depression.
The psychologist Dr. Jaime Cárcamo said that he began seeing 9/11 patients in 2002. In total, he sees between 60 and 70 patients. He estimates that 98 percent of them are undocumented.
Cárcamo said that this group's post-traumatic stress disorder is different from that of others because "almost all of them are nervous."
"They think that they don't have rights as undocumented people, and they refuse to take advantage of the options available to them," he said. "They are afraid that if they seek help, they could be deported. This only exacerbates their problems."
The problems of undocumented 9/11 workers would have been mitigated by comprehensive immigration reform that included healthcare reform as well, added Cárcamo.
Alex Sánchez, an American citizen of Dominican ancestry, agrees. He also worked at Ground Zero and has been pressuring Congress to pass a comprehensive healthcare bill for the 9/11 workers – the same one that Congressman Nadler supports. Because he is sick, Sánchez said he lost his apartment, his wife, and precious moments with his son.
Sánchez is aware that undocumented individuals are worse off.
"Increasingly, police have been on the lookout for them and are asking people for identification. They live in fear and consequently receive false information. It's very difficult," he said. "The undocumented people are souls without a presence, they're zombies."