NEW YORK (AP) – Franklin Anchahua cleaned thick layers of dust from offices, apartments and even a chapel in lower Manhattan for weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
At first, he treated his heartburn and acid reflux with herbs his mother sent from Peru. He avoided available health programs because he lives illegally in the United States and feared deportation.
Until the discomfort is too much.
“It was horrible. I needed medical treatment, a specialist. I also had breathing problems,” said Anchahua, 50, who first visited Bellevue Hospital in 2011. .
He and other immigrants, mostly Spanish-speaking cleaning workers, have long sought legal immigrant status in the United States to compensate for the work and health problems they suffered after the attacks .
But 20 years after September 11, only a few dozen are still participating in and requesting protests, while others have abandoned the fight.
“It is difficult to find a job here without immigration status,” Anchahua said. “The lawyers who helped us years ago told us we would get immigration papers but, look, 20 years have passed and we have nothing.”
Not as visible as those working at the World Trade Center rubble pile, some of these cleaners did not immediately see a doctor because they feared eviction, didn’t know how to navigate the application process, or didn’t know that help was available.
While some say they feel forgotten by the US government, others have returned to Latin America.
Informally hired by cleaning companies, they cleaned debris, asbestos and dust from inside buildings in lower Manhattan for months without proper protective gear. Some are struggling to cope with how the disaster transformed their lives, claiming they are also being treated for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A few of them organize a small demonstration in October to push the government to establish a legal residency route for immigrant cleaning workers.
They have made similar protests in the past. Former U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley announced a bill in 2017 to put 9/11 responders and cleanup workers on a fast track to legal immigration status in the United States. His office then estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 immigrants would be covered.
The bill did not go very far; it was not reintroduced by any of Congressman Crowley’s co-sponsors after his retirement.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office, who defeated Crowley in the 2018 midterm election primaries, told AP it was “actively” exploring the possibility of reintroducing the bill.
“The MP is also in favor of greater immigration reform, co-sponsoring numerous pieces of legislation that would have paved the way for citizenship for these workers as well as for others,” said the spokesperson for Ocasio- Cortez, Lauren Hitt.
While many cleaners came from Latin America, others came from Poland and other European countries. They organized themselves into different groups and shared information on medical aid and forms of compensation.
Rosa Bramble Caballero, a licensed clinical social worker, has helped these workers for 15 years, first partnering with state and local programs to help them and then voluntarily, hosting meetings in the basement of her office in Queens .
Dozens of cleaners showed up there to talk, eat chicken and cheese empanadas, and sip coffee together.
“It has become a space for them to feel safe, to talk about their life, their needs, but most of all, to support each other, not to feel alone,” said Bramble Caballero.
Lucelly Gil, a 65-year-old Colombian, is a regular at Queens gatherings.
She received compensation from the Federal Victims Fund after developing breast cancer and taking medication for rhinitis and gastritis. She is being treated for depression and uses an asthma inhaler.
Gil spent six months cleaning up debris in Lower Manhattan, in government offices, banks, and restaurants. She earned about $ 60 for eight hours of work.
She said she had nightmares for a long time after seeing first responders retrieve body parts. She vividly remembers her cough at work and the rashes on her skin after tearing the fiberglass insulation paper off the walls.
“Instead of giving us compensation, they could have given us (immigration) papers,” she said. “All of us, all Hispanic workers, saw the consequences of this cleaning job later. “
More than 112,000 people have signed up for the federal World Trade Center health program, which provides free medical care to people who can prove they have been exposed to dust from the Twin Towers, regardless of their immigration status.
Many of these registrants suffer from mild or controllable conditions, such as heartburn, chronic sinus problems, or asthma, which are common among the general public and may or may not be related to the attacks. Others are more seriously ill or have developed conditions rare for their age group.
Joan Reibman, medical director of the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, which has treated cleaning workers for years, said many of them developed significant reductions in lung function, digestive disorders and PTSD.
“They were exposed to terrible scenes around that time,” she said.
They encountered obstacles in seeking care, such as economic vulnerabilities and not belonging to a union, she said.
“A lot of them weren’t aware of the programs because they weren’t connected in the same way as many other stakeholders. Many of them were also not English speakers, ”Reibman said.
About 800 cleaners are treated at the WTC Environmental Health Center, one of many places where they could potentially receive treatment.
Medical programs do not ask questions about immigration status.
About four years ago, Anchahua, the Peruvian immigrant, received $ 52,000 after filing a lawsuit against the cleaning company he worked for in Lower Manhattan after the attacks. Early last year, he returned to Peru to help his elderly mother and a sick brother.
However, he decided to return to New York this year after not finding a job in his native country and concluding that he should continue his medical treatment. He applied to the US government for a humanitarian visa, which he was denied. He illegally crossed the border through Mexico last month.
Luis Soriano, another cleaning agent, also left for Latin America but decided not to return to the United States.
“My mom was getting older, so I moved to Ecuador in 2016. But my health was not great,” the 59-year-old model craftsman said in a phone interview.
Soriano cleaned up debris for three months around Fulton Street. Sometimes he still feels tired or short of breath. Drugs for it, however, are expensive in Ecuador and he cannot afford it, he said.
“We must be called back. We were all immigrants who contributed to the United States. We worked hard there, paid taxes, got old there. Some cleaners I knew died of cancer, ”he said. “We should all remember what we did. “