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Illegal Immigrants: The 'Hidden' Victims of World Trade Center Attacks - 2001-10-09

Scores of legal and undocumented immigrants, were among the victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But many of their identities remain unknown. They worked on all floors of the Twin Towers as deliverymen, busboys, janitors and construction workers. One Mexican organization is trying to locate the families of the immigrants, while assisting the survivors in crisis.

Since September 11, Arnuafo Chino speaks to his wife on the phone several times a day.

When the World Trade Center was attacked, Mr. Chino's wife spent hours not knowing if her husband was dead or alive.

Mr. Chino, a 33-year-old illegal immigrant in New York City from Pueblo, Mexico, was a waiter at a restaurant across from the Twin Towers. He spent 12 years working his way up from his first job as a busboy.

Now, with the restaurant in ruins, and no hope of compensation, Mr. Chino is looking for a new job while volunteering in the search for missing immigrants. With little savings, he and his family are living on aid from Tepeyac, an organization that helps Spanish-speaking immigrants, mostly from Mexico.

"They gave us help [with] psychologists. They have good [people] here, who help us with everything," he said. "Also, they try to see [if] we could have some money, some help from different institutions, to cover our bills, rent, even to buy some food for our kids."

Mr. Chino has a harrowing tale of running for his life when the Twin Towers collapsed. Mostly, he says, he is grateful to be alive.

Now, he and many undocumented immigrants who worked in or near the World Trade Center, face a unique array of problems, since they do not have visas and most speak little English.

Four Mexican immigrants who used to work in the Twin Towers as deliverymen are filling out paper work, applying for aide from Tepeyac and the International Red Cross. They are the lucky ones. They are also filling out a form for their friend, Juan Ortega, another deliveryman, who did not make it out of the towers.

For years in the United States, it is friends who make up the support system for many migrants, who send money home to their families. Sometimes, it was the victims' friends who put up signs, reporting the missing.

A case worker at Tepeyac, Genoveva Garcia, says Mr. Ortega's wife lives in Mexico and found out about her husband's death from his roommate. She flew to New York on a humanitarian visa and is too distraught to be interviewed.

"She heard everything on the news," she said. "It was devastating. She was very sad. She was watching the TV and she tried to call here, but the phones were very busy; it's been very hard for her. Right now, she's going through her husband's stuff, going through all his clothes, everything."

Tepeyac's director of urgent services, Esperanza Chacon, dropped all her other work on September 11 after calls of desperation started coming in. Now, she spends her days on the phone, looking for answers.

Ms. Chacon estimates that there were at least 400 undocumented immigrants from all over the world working in the service industry in the World Trade Center. She says, of the 95 people she has been asked to search for, only 30 have turned up alive.

"All the people who called, we made a database, with all the important characteristics of the people, rings, and complexion, and we looked for them at the hospitals," she said. "That was a big challenge for us, because many of them don't have family here and we received calls from Mexico and we received some cases by e-mail also. Some of the relatives, they came, and some of the cases were reported by a friend."

Ms. Chacon says she has taken on the grim task of contacting relatives of victims, sometimes living in a small Central American village, with just one public phone. They do not always know their relative is missing.

She says the tragedy is made worse by the fact that some immigrants will not come forward because they are in the United States illegally, and fear they will be deported.

"Yesterday came a Honduran lady, she's from Honduras," said Ms. Chacon. "And she didn't [notify] anyone about the missing of her husband. She was afraid because they have no documents. After more than two weeks, she was holding all that pain because she was afraid."

It is unclear how many of the approximately 5,000 victims were undocumented workers.

The Immigrant and Naturalization Service has announced that immigrants who survived the attacks, and relatives of those who died, should identify themselves as part of the rescue effort. The INS assures, they will not be arrested or detained.

Ms. Chacon says she is glad the INS made that statement. Still, she says, many immigrants, who face difficult challenges in the best of times, do not even know it is safe to come forward.