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USA: Relief Efforts Miss the Undocumented

by Martin EspinozaPacific News Service
September 26th, 2001

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 underground economy.

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 vicinity.

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 States.

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