Despite having undergone surgery and subsequent treatment, the cancer came back again in 2010. On her nightstand, a breathing device has been her sleep companion for the past few years. There are also more than 20 jars of pills she cannot do without, as they control her asthma, reflux, sinusitis and other respiratory problems.
Espinosa arrived in New York in 1999 from Ecuador, leaving two small children behind. Back in her country she had studied to be an assistant nurse, and in the Big Apple she was looking for a better future for her sons and to continue her education in the medical field. She was realizing her dream until Sept. 11, 2001, when tragedy paralyzed the city. With fear in her body but self-assured, Espinosa made it to ground zero and that same night she worked as a volunteer. It was her vocation that made her do it. She helped as a rescuer, cleaning rubble, distributing food and a countless number of other things.
“There were a lot of people who were still injured asking for help, and many dead people,” said Espinosa, 53, who can barely hold back her tears as she remembers.
Espinosa is small and her dark, slanted eyes are always tearful. As she describes how those weeks were, she searches for her WTC volunteer ID in an old suitcase. The first ultrasound that diagnosed her tumor turns up among the papers.
“There was a humaneness… There we were, immigrants, white people, black people, all together. Race and language didn’t matter, we communicated through gestures. Words were not necessary because what united us was our heart. Nobody asked for our papers, only our effort,” added Espinosa.
With the stress of those days, Espinosa did not realize that in her womb she was carrying her third child. It was not until four months later, when she went to the doctor worried about constant respiratory problems, that she was informed about her pregnancy. Her son Steven was born with asthma, sinusitis and mental health problems.
Espinosa is one of an estimated more than 3,000 undocumented immigrants who worked during the first months after the collapse of the Twin Towers, both in recovery and cleanup tasks.
Espinosa is currently enrolled in the WTC health program which offers health assistance, checkups and financial compensation to rescuers, cleaning workers and volunteers. It was established through the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and reauthorized in 2015 until 2090.
“Nobody told us that the air was toxic, and they only gave us paper masks which turned black instantly,” said Espinosa. “I never imagined that every day that I inhaled that air I was slowly contaminating my body and my baby.”
A week after the attacks, on Sept. 18, 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that the air and the water at ground zero were perfectly healthy.
However, an abundance of analysis carried out since show that the destruction of the WTC was one of the worst environmental disasters in the city’s history, according to studies performed by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health in 2007. Apart from the initial 3,000 deaths, more than 400,000 rescuers, volunteers, local residents and passers-by were exposed to the environmental contamination.
In September 2012, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health added 50 types of cancer (which increased later on) to the list of WTC-related health conditions under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The studies that were performed found more than 70 potentially cancerous substances in the smoke and dust of ground zero.
Nora Treviño, a 62-year-old Colombian woman, cannot live a minute without air conditioning, or she suffocates. Both in winter and summer, if the air conditioning is not turned on, her respiration becomes troubled and slow, and she is unable to talk. Twice a day, she needs oxygen and she needs a respiratory device in order to sleep. She takes more than 20 pills and is unable to work. With shortness of breath, she laboriously lies down in her bed and pulls up her flowered dress to show her swollen legs. It is getting harder and harder for her to walk.
She started working at ground zero on Sept. 17 and stayed until March 2002. She never received any toxicity warning, and the only protection that was provided to her were latex gloves and paper masks.
“They asked us… ‘Who wants to do a shift?’, ‘Who wants to do a shift and a half?’… and you know that when there is work you must take advantage, and at times we did two shifts. They would pay me $60 for eight hours. I worked this way until March 2 of the following year,” said Treviño.
Although there are no exact figures of the number of undocumented workers who participated in the WTC recovery and cleanup activities, published studies by the Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine show that the majority were first-generation immigrants from Colombia, Ecuador and Poland. They lacked the adequate training to deal with the toxic materials and they had little or no knowledge of English. According to pro-worker organizations, the number of undocumented workers involved is several thousand. The Frente Hispano Local 79 and the Frente Unido Ecuatoriano confirm that there are more than 3,000 unionized undocumented immigrants with health problems caused by the towers’ collapse.
Rubiela Arias, a 51-year-old Colombian woman, worked for eight months in the cleanup of buildings adjacent to the WTC. She is currently the representative of the Hazardous Materials Workers World Trade Center organization, which protects the rights of the WTC cleanup workers.
According to Arias, the company that hired her provided her with an ID card and never requested any documents. “Every day, they signed at the entrance and exit, but they never asked me about my migratory status. In order to apply for the health program, I had to prove that I worked there by showing my ID card of the company that hired me,” said Arias.
Many eligible undocumented immigrants did not apply for the health programs out of fear of being deported, and that is one of the reasons why they were never counted. They did not know that they did not need to show their migratory status in order to sign up, and limited knowledge of English prevented thousands from getting information.
The lack of records of these workers from the companies that hired them has also made it enormously difficult for them to be able to participate in the WTC health programs or the Zadroga compensation program, as they don’t have the documents to prove that they worked there. In many cases, the companies that hired them did not want to provide them with the registration forms in order to avoid paying any compensation for damages.
Heroes without rights
In the last few months, fear has returned to the lives of the 9/11 undocumented workers, due to President Trump’s new measures against immigrants.
Last June, New York Rep. Joseph Crowley led a successful campaign to stop the deportation of Carlos Cardona, a Queens resident and ground zero recovery worker. Likewise, on July 9 Rep. Crowley announced a new legislative proposal called the “9/11 Immigrant Worker Freedom Act,” which will protect more than 3,000 undocumented people of all nationalities who worked in the rescue and cleanup efforts after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, according to the congressman’s office.
“These workers stepped up to provide critical services (…). Countless individuals went to work at a long, hazardous and painful job of cleaning up the destruction of the attacks. Yet many of them still lack legal immigration options and have lived in fear of deportation from the country they served,” said Rep. Crowley when he announced the bill on the steps of New York City Hall.
The law would be a glimmer of hope for Espinosa, Treviño and thousands more for whom deportation would put an end to their medical treatments. In their home countries, they would hardly be able to afford them, and the lack of medication would end their lives. A change of immigration status would provide them, apart from the possibility to fight for financial compensation, with access to housing and many other rights they have been denied due to lack of documents.
Sept. 11 continues to be a difficult day for them. Post-traumatic stress and anxiety accompany them every day of their lives, but when the anniversary approaches, memories rush back. They cannot erase the nightmarish images they witnessed from their minds.
Every one of them lives through the anniversary their own way. Some of them participate in the official ceremonies at ground zero and others prefer to take refuge in their own homes, waiting for the day to go by. One point they all agree on is that the event not only changed their health, but also their way of being, and that they have been unable to forget.
This story first appeared in Spanish in CNN Español.