USA: Relief Efforts Miss the Undocumented
NEW YORK -- Alejandro Fuentes may never see a dime of the millions of
dollars Americans are donating to those most affected by the terrorist
attacks in Lower Manhattan.
Fuentes (not his real name) is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who
worked at a restaurant inside the World Trade Center for $2.50 an hour,
plus tips. He was lucky to get out of the financial center before its two
largest towers collapsed.
Now unemployed, Fuentes is hard pressed to get back into New York City's
Carmen Alvarez (not her real name), another survivor, worked "under the
table" as a shoe shiner at The Hartford, a financial services company in a
building next to the twin towers. Though Alvarez is in the United States
legally -- and thus eligible for unemployment insurance -- she has no way
of documenting her income. Company employees paid her in cash.
The only proof she has of working for The Hartford is the company's
plastic security card -- and a slew of terrifying memories of fleeing from
the chaos of the attacks.
It was not just Lower Manhattan's executives and lawyers, or even union
janitors and low-wage shopkeepers, who were affected by the recent
disaster. An unknown number of sub-minimum wage immigrants like Alvarez and
Fuentes, most of them undocumented and many from Mexico, either lost their
jobs or their lives.
Because of their illegal status, many lived on the margins of society,
and were known to their neighbors and co-workers by a first name or
nickname only. Despite the unprecedented disaster relief and international
attention that followed the event that "changed the world," most still
struggle to put their lives back together in the aftermath of the attacks.
Recently, a group of about 30 survivors gathered at the Manhattan
offices of Asociacon Tepeyac, a human-rights group that primarily serves
New York City's Mexican immigrant community. They worked in restaurants,
delis, and shops either in the World Trade Center or in the immediate
At the meeting, Joel Magallan, executive director of the organization,
told the group they were unlikely to receive help from either the Mexican
or American governments. Magallan harshly criticizes the Mexican government
for not doing enough to help the survivors.
"The Mexican government," said Magallan, "says it's going to pay medical
costs for the injured and pay to bring back bodies. But they know that
there won't be any bodies or injured."
In the days that followed the attacks, Magallan's criticism of the
Mexican government reached the ears of Mexican President Vicente Fox. This
prompted a meeting between Magallan, the Mexican Consulate, and Juan
Hernndez, Fox's point-person on issues related to Mexican immigrants.
The three groups came up with a loose plan for documenting those who
were affected and raising money to help them. The Mexican Consulate puts
the number of missing Mexican nationals at 16. Magallan said his group has
documented about 30 missing, and says the number could be much higher.
The Mexican Consulate in New York says it has devoted a number of
resources toward helping families identify their loved ones, including
several 800 numbers people can call in the United States and in Mexico.
It is clear, however, that the Consulate's resources are either limited
or strained. Though the Consulate said it had notified the families of the
16 missing persons, one Consulate representative (who requested anonymity)
said that only three families have made requests for help to come to the
United States. The representative could not say what, if any, help would be
available to those who lost their jobs: "This is something that [all the
agencies of the Mexican government] are still working on."
At the meeting of the survivors, Magallan tried to reassure the group
that his organization would try to find financial and other assistance for
them. But for that to be possible, he said, they must do what most illegal
immigrants would rather avoid: document their existence in the United
- 116 Human Rights