Families Of Undocumented Immigrants Lost On 9/11 Continue To Search For Closure

For a brief moment, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Teresa Garcia thought she’d seen a ghost.

She was in her office in midtown Manhattan, watching the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center, when he walked in.

«He was covered with dust. All white dust. And we couldn’t even recognize him,» Garcia says, recalling that day. «But he talked to my coworker and he said ‘Esperanza.’ And she said, ‘Chino, is that you?’ «

Garcia works at Asociacion Tepeyac de New York, a non-profit that assists mostly Latino immigrants with English language skills, legal aid and tax assistance.

The man who walked in, Chino, was an undocumented immigrant. Garcia is using only nickname to protect his identity. He had been heading over to start his shift at a restaurant at one of the towers, when the first plane hit. In shock, he made his way to Asociacion Tepeyac, to see Garcia and her colleague Esperanza Chacon.

«He came over to her (Esperanza),» Garcias says, «and he embraced her, and they started crying.»

Little by little, dozens of workers started filing into Tepeyac’s offices, looking for comfort among friends. But what stood out were those who were missing, their friends who worked as cooks and cleaners, at or near the World Trade Center.

The workers who’d gathered at Tepeyac started compiling a list, which in the next few days grew to 700 missing people. Almost all immigrants, many undocumented.

That list was important. In order to get financial or medical aid, New Yorkers or their families had to prove they worked at or near ground zero and that they were affected by the attack. Knowing who was there also would allow families to mourn, to bring closure.

For years, the people at Tepeyac and other families have been trying to prove the immigrants who worked at the World Trade Center existed. That effort has proved to be extremely challenging.

How do you prove a person, who deliberately had tried to stay hidden from the system, was real without the proper documentation?

Garcia and the others could see a bureaucratic nightmare beginning to unfold and they got to work. Tepeyac started sending folks to look through missing people’s homes, she says, to look through their personal belongings, «to see if they had a passport, a birth certificate, if they sent money with names [on the order]. And it was real difficult, because people weren’t using their real identities.»

Friendships were built working at the Twin Towers

Sekou Siby understands the dilemma. He came to the United States in 1996, an undocumented immigrant fleeing political unrest in Cote D’Ivoire.

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After 9/11 killed dozens of his friends, many whose families were undocumented, Sekou Siby became a labor right organizer.

Jasmine Garsd/NPR/Jasmine Garsd/NPR

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Teresa Garcia says she remains haunted by the dozens of undocumented workers she believes remain missing at the site of 9/11.

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Teresa Garcia, from Asociacion Tepeyac, says she, too, has struggled with a profound sense of loss. She visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum as it was being built. She says «it was like … like a big hole. That’s how it felt. It’s so difficult to accept that some of our people, they never existed. It was so painful.»

Garcia says she has lost contact with most of the families of the missing and the survivors. Except for one person, Chino, the man who showed up at her office on the morning of 9/11, looking like an apparition, caked in white dust.

«He calls me, on 9/11. Every 9/11,» she says.

She’s expecting his call this Saturday. She’ll ask him how life is in the suburbs in Connecticut, where he moved to after the attacks.

He’ll tell her he has trouble breathing, and she’ll urge him to go to the doctor- what if it’s something he inhaled that day?

He’ll respond the way he always does: whatever it is, he doesn’t want to know. And she says she knows what he’ll say next:

«Oh my God. I am so lucky to be alive.»

But he doesn’t like to talk about how it happened.

Or the invisible people they both tried so hard to find.


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