At 7 am on September 15, 2001, Lucelly Gil entered the immense cloud of toxic dust produced by the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. From that moment on, she would collect debris there for up to 12 hours a day, daily, for six months.
Today, almost two decades later, this 65-year-old Colombian woman lives undocumented with the consequences of that work: she is a survivor of breast cancer – one of the most frequent among women who were at the scene of the attacks -, she has a disabled arm that it causes so much pain that it makes her cry every day and she suffers from depression.
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For eight months after the attacks, tens of thousands of people – many of them immigrants – cleared the “Ground Zero”, where the World Trade Center was located, emptied and demolished other damaged buildings and removed 1.8 million tons of debris from the area in exchange from 7.5 to $10 an hour, a salary just above the minimum at the time.
They didn’t know it then, but exposure to asbestos and other toxic materials such as lead would cause them cancer, asbestosis and a host of respiratory illnesses, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
“I don’t like to remember Ground Zero anniversaries (…) I feel like I’m going backwards,” says Gil, weeping, at a recent session of 9/11 Latino janitors support group “Fronteiras da Esperança” meets occasionally in the Queens district.
She recalls that after working so many hours, sometimes finding human remains, “I would go home and think I was still cleaning.”
“I almost go crazy,” he remembers.
September 11, 2002 – Gust of wind kicks up dust at Ground Zero during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the bombings — Photo: the
Gil still dreams of becoming a legal resident of the United States as a reward for this work that left her incapacitated for the rest of her life.
A former Democratic representative from New York even presented a bill in this regard in 2017, but it was never debated in Congress.
“It is an injustice that the people who cleaned do not have documents because they have lost the most precious thing, which is health. There is no money to pay (…) Health is priceless”, says Rubiela Arias, 57, to the AFP. another Colombian who worked cleaning Ground Zero, in the modest room she rents in Queens with the help of her son.
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Arias, who has been fighting for years for the legalization of the Hispanics who cleaned up “the gigantic cemetery” at Ground Zero, has since suffered from various respiratory and stomach ailments, as well as post-traumatic stress, among other mental illnesses.
More than 2,000 people including cleaning staff, first responders and police officers died of 9/11-related illnesses, according to the federal victims’ compensation fund.
In recent years, many illegal janitors, some sick people, have been deported, guarantees social worker Rosa Bramble, who since 2010 has voluntarily led the “Fronteiras da Esperança” group in her Queens office.
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Others returned to their countries to die because they were sick and could not work to support themselves. “Here they couldn’t pay rent,” says this professor at Columbia University, of Venezuelan origin.
Most 9/11 janitors enjoy full medical coverage through the World Trade Center’s federal health program, but many have not received compensation.
This is the case of Franklin, a 50-year-old illegal Peruvian with various respiratory illnesses, who decided to leave New York and return to Lima in 2019 to say goodbye to his sick mother, whom he hadn’t seen for 20 years.
When he tried to return for medical treatment guaranteed by the WTC health program, into which he had been accepted, and to claim financial compensation, the American embassy in Lima denied him a visa.
In June, he twice tried to cross the border between Mexico and the United States illegally with the help of coyotes, but was deported to Mexico on both occasions.
“I practically gave my life to clean Marco Zero and I don’t think it’s fair that they pay me this way. I don’t even know what to expect from life anymore,” he tells AFP, desperate, speaking by telephone from a house in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez , where the coyotes kept him locked up until the time of the third, successful attempt.
Some workers who sued New York City and the companies that employed them managed to get compensation. In addition, Congress approved federal compensation payments in 2011 with a maximum of $250,000 for 9/11-linked cancers.
Lucelly Gil received $40,000 in 2018, but unable to work, the money ran out after paying debts and back rent.
“We Latinos are discriminated against in relation to other 9/11 workers,” he guarantees.
“We are in oblivion,” agrees Rosa Duque, a 56-year-old Guatemalan cleaning lady who is breathing hard and claims permanent residence for all undocumented immigrants who cleaned Ground Zero.
“When we offered to work, they didn’t ask, ‘Are you a citizen?’, ‘Are you a resident?'”, he says.