The File on the Victims of 911 will Remain Open as Long as the Undocumented Victims are not Recognized

These days marked another anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack. As every year, commemorative ceremonies took place. The names of the 3,000 dead were read, at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and in Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania.

“Nine Eleven” left a stain of horror on the image of New York. For a long time that was the face of the city. A couple of months after the attacks I traveled there while working as the editor of the Huffington Post Latino Voices. A colleague took me to the Towers, at that time a gigantic cemetery surrounded by fences and crowds of workers inside.

All around the perimeter of what were the buildings, hundreds or thousands of small posters with photos of the fallen. Missing. A name, some contact information. An implore. Short prayers. Was anyone found alive as a result? Maybe. These were thousands of sources of hope and, at the same time, despair.

The attack shook the country like no other event since Pearl Harbor, and dictated our history for the next 22 years.

The new numbers

Over time, new numbers have been added to the fatal figures of victims. They include now those who gave their lives after having contracted various diseases, especially respiratory diseases, due to the 400 tons of pulverized asbestos that emerged in a cloud that expanded through Lower Manhattan. Those who inhaled the smoke and dust developed cancers of various types, and suffered from respiratory failure, and gastrointestinal problems. Not to mention the mental traumas, that are for life.

Not all victims after the attack were wearing uniforms.

One of the least known of that date and the subsequent ones is the story of undocumented immigrants during September 11th. Those who worked in the towers, serving food, cleaning offices, even running companies. The servants and the owners. Those who disappeared in the dust. Those who worked around the buildings. Those who, in thousands, came to clean the gigantic land.

Faster Faster. There was an urgency to return to normal. Intense pressure to clean up what remained of the World Trade Center as quickly as possible. The idea was to reopen the Wall Street Stock Exchange. To show “business as usual”, or “the show must go on”.

The Department of Environmental Protection Agency told nearly 400,000 New Yorkers to return to work, schools and their homes. Today we know it: the feverish run to return to business normality caused hundreds of thousands of sick people and thousands of deaths of unrecognized heroes.

Many months went by, but those very polluting and toxic agents remained in the air.

And of course, no one took responsibility for that macabre act.

No changes to immigration status

In the attacks themselves, say those who counted, some 250 Hispanics died: 177 men and 81 women. Around 9% of the total. But when it came to benefits to the victims, there is still a line dividing between undocumented immigrants and the rest. The “illegals” or their relatives, for years were not recognized by the authorities because they were undocumented. Many did receive some type of medical treatment and some financial compensation, but never obtained the immigration status for which they have fought so hard.

One of the problems was that since they did not have documents. The consequence was that for the authorities the victims did not exist.

And how can you prove that a person, who had deliberately tried to remain hidden from the system, was real without proper documentation? That is why immigrants suffered a double attack: by terrorists and by the circumstances of their lives that led them to not have papers in a foreign country.

The Mexican consulate in New York announced that 16 Mexicans had lost their lives, but only five of them were identified by the government.

According to the nonprofit Unite Here, at least 43 Hispanic workers who worked on the 106th floor at The Windows on the World restaurant died. But the Federal Compensation Fund paid between 1.1 and 1.4 million for the only four it recognized.

One of the Hispanic rescuers remembers that he received many calls from desperate families, who in vain visited Manhattan hospitals and morgues, looking for their loved ones. He observed that they did not ask for help from the authorities. They had no documents to prove their loved ones worked at or near Ground Zero.

“The police asked for identification… who in their right mind would go to the police with false papers?” They did not report them, for fear of deportation.

Come and report

After weeks, the immigration authorities reacted, announcing that they were not going to take action, that immigration status did not matter. The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund made the same clear. Let them come and report their cases, they said.

That they will receive benefits, they said.  “Please note that immigration status does not influence your hearing and undocumented people can attend a VCF hearing without risk of exposure,” says the Victims Compensation Fund site.

Lawyer Michael Barasch, legal defender of September 11, said: “there are thousands of people affected, who, because they do not have papers, have preferred to suffer alone. Many have fallen into debt and unfortunately others are dead or disabled… Even with fellow witnesses their identity can be verified. The idea is to lose fear and consult.”

But people were afraid, and communication about available help services was ineffective. Various aid agencies, governmental and non-governmental, requested different procedural requirements and had different programs. In some cases, that made it almost impossible for undocumented migrants or their family members to provide proof of their presence at the site or their employment at the affected businesses;

It is documented by the film Seen But Not Heard, directed by Calogero Salvo, which closely followed the stories of relatives and their efforts to convince the authorities that their relatives actually existed and to be able to access compensation funds.

Outside the statistics

In the documentary, Luz María, mother of four, says that she had not seen her husband for two years. His job, she says, was to bring food to the offices. She went out to look for him in the hospitals. Then she went to the Family Center at Pier 94, where aid agencies, such as the Red Cross or the Community Assistance Unit (CAU), were established, to try to register him. They interviewed her: “You have an ID? No passport? No bills? No correspondence in his name? No birth certificate? Nothing?”


The wall that surrounded the building was a display of horror, with photos of those who did not return. She could only add  there that of her husband.

For many then, the attack of 22 years made them disappeared further. They are not even part of the statistics. They are completely invisible.

At first, the Tepeyac association of New York made a list of 700 missing people, almost all of them immigrants, many of them undocumented. Over the years, their list was reduced to 67 missing people. But out of that number, only 12 families came forward and proved the existence of their loved one in order to get some help. And the search still goes on.

The cleaners

But it is not just about those who were in or around the towers, the dead and wounded from the attack itself.

Within days of the terrorist attack, word spread in immigrant neighborhoods that workers were urgently needed to help with cleanup efforts. They offered $10 an hour (in another case $60 a day), with no questions about immigration status.

Several thousands were hired by small, non-unionized private companies. The workers needed that $10 an hour.

But while police, firefighters, union workers, and almost everyone else wore adequate, modern protective equipment, the 2,000 undocumented workers who cleaned Ground Zero were only given paper masks.

They were of no use.

Nearly 70% of the workers who helped with the cleanup showed respiratory symptoms, according to researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

In total, the total number of deaths would be more than 4,610.

Twenty two years later

Years passed. New issues with each anniversary. Identifications of remains through new DNA recognition methods are still being announced. Files continue to be opened for requests for help.

Many are not aware of those options, which is why NY legislators are advancing a bill that would force Lower Manhattan companies to inform their workforce about the WTC Health Program.

The 9/11 Notification Act “requires state agencies to develop rules for businesses to inform their employees (or former workers) about two federal programs, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and the Health Program. of the World Trade Center, if they became ill from exposure while in Lower Manhattan,” Eric Feldman wrote for Spectrum News.

Last year, in September 2022, the title of a report in El Diario de Nueva York said: “Are you undocumented and were you exposed to the toxic dust of the September 11 attacks in New York? 21 years later, you can have medical help” Help is available.

The Nine Eleven book of the dead has not been closed. It remains open, and will remain so as long as the bodies are not identified, these cases are not resolved, and justice is not done for all the victims. Including the undocumented immigrants.

This article was supported in whole, or in part, by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the Library of the State of California and the Latino Media Collaborative.


  • Gabriel Lerner

    Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.

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