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New York (AFP) – On September 15, 2001, at seven in the morning, Lucelly Gil entered the immense cloud of toxic dust created by the collapse of the Twin Towers, south of Manhattan. She will spend all her days there, for six months, up to 12 hours a day.

Almost 20 years later, this 65-year-old Colombian, undocumented, lives with the aftermath of these days: she had breast cancer – one of the most frequent cancers for women mobilized at the World Trade Center – suffers from a arm so sore that it became useless, and depression.

In the eight months following the September 11 attacks, tens of thousands of people – many of them immigrants, often undocumented like Lucelly Gil – cleared Ground Zero, clearing some 1.8 million tonnes of debris, for an hourly wage of 7.5 to 10 dollars, then slightly above the minimum wage.

They were unaware that they would be exposed to toxic and carcinogenic substances like lead and asbestos, and develop respiratory diseases, asbestosis, post-traumatic stress and depression.

“I don’t like to think about birthdays (of the attacks)… I feel like going back,” sobs Lucelly Gil, during a recent meeting of a support group for 9/11 cleaners, organized still occasionally in the Queens area.

She remembers that after having cleared long hours, sometimes falling on human remains, “I would go home thinking I was still cleaning (…) I was going almost crazy”.

Lucelly Gil dreams of obtaining a residence permit, as a reward for these six months which have made her forever unfit for work. In 2017, an elected New York Democrat introduced a text providing for the regularization of undocumented cleaners, without success.

“For the cleaners to remain undocumented is an injustice, because they lost their most precious possession, health. There is no payment worth it, (..) health is priceless, ”Rubiela Arias, another Colombian cleaner, also says from the modest room she rents in the Queens neighborhood.

Rubiela Arias, who has fought for years for the regularization of Hispanic cleaners, now also suffers from respiratory and digestive illnesses, and depression.

More than 2,000 cleaners, rescue workers and police have already died of 9/11-related illnesses, according to the Federal Victims Compensation Fund.

In recent years, many undocumented and sometimes sick cleaners “have been kicked out,” says Rosa Bramble, a social worker and professor at Columbia University, who leads the support group in which Lucelly Gil participates.

Others, who could no longer work, returned to their native countries for good. “They can’t pay their rent here,” she says.

Most cleaners have full health coverage through a special federal program created after the attacks, but many have received no compensation.

This is the case of Franklin, a 50-year-old undocumented Peruvian cleaner with several respiratory illnesses, who returned to Lima in 2019 to care for his ailing mother, whom he had not seen for 20 years.

When he wanted to return to New York to continue his medical treatment under this federal program and submit a claim for compensation, the United States Embassy in Lima refused him a visa.

“I pretty much gave my life to clean up Ground Zero, and it’s not fair to be paid that way. I don’t know what to expect from life, ”he told AFP at the time, by phone from the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez.

With the help of smugglers, Franklin, who prefers to keep his last name hidden, finally managed to return, illegally, on his third attempt in mid-July.

Some cleaners, after taking legal action against New York City or the companies that employed them, ended up being compensated. Congress also approved in 2011 a text guaranteeing federal compensation for the patients of 9/11, up to $ 250,000.

Lucelly Gil received $ 40,000 in 2018, but without a work permit, the money only allowed her to pay off debts.

“We have been forgotten,” said Rosa Duque, a 56-year-old Guatemalan cleaner, also suffering from respiratory problems, who is campaigning for a permanent residence permit for all Ground Zero employees.

“When we were asked to go, no one asked us if we had a residence permit.”

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September 11’s Forgotten, Ground Zero immigrant cleaners