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Undocumented Immigrants Employed By The World Trade Center Remain Missing

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The World Trade Center employed hundreds of immigrants. Some held high-ranking, well-paid positions. Others earned low wages as cooks, cleaners and delivery people. Some of those workers were undocumented, often working and living in the shadows. After 9/11, that secrecy made it especially difficult for families and friends to claim them as victims. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has more.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: For a brief moment on the morning of September 11, Teresa Garcia thought she'd seen a ghost. She was in her office watching the news of the attacks on the World Trade Center when he walked in.

TERESA GARCIA: He was covered with dust, all white dust. And we couldn't even recognize him. But he talked to my co-worker, and he said, Esperanza. And she said, Chino, is that you?

GARSD: Garcia works at Asociacion Tepeyac, a nonprofit that assists mostly Latino immigrants. The man who walked in, who went by Chino, had been heading over to start his shift at a restaurant at one of the towers when the first plane hit.

GARCIA: Then he came over to her, and he embraced her, and they started crying.

GARSD: They were soon joined by dozens of other workers, but the absences were striking. So they started a list of the missing. It grew to around 700 people, mostly immigrant, mostly undocumented, which early on led to a sense of apprehension about approaching the authorities.

SEKOU SIBY: You have the police asking for ID.

GARSD: That's Sekou Siby. He was a cook at Windows on the World, a restaurant on the 106th floor of the North Tower. He was off that day. Siby, an asylum seeker, says there was so much fear of asking for help.

SIBY: I mean, who in his right mind will go to police with a fake ID?

GARSD: Suddenly, the search was on for people who'd spent most their lives trying not to be found. The Victims Compensation Fund, established shortly after 9/11, was available to anyone who applied regardless of immigration status. But proving that a person was at the site of the attacks became an odyssey.

GARCIA: They have no pay stubs. They have no income tax. They have no lease.

GARSD: Garcia says employers themselves didn't want to admit to hiring an undocumented worker. Tepeyac went so far as to search missing people's homes.

GARCIA: To see they have a passport, birth certificate or to see they send money with some names. And it was really difficult because people were not using their real identities.

GARSD: Tepeyac whittled its list of 700 or so missing people down to 67 - 67 families whose main provider had disappeared in the attacks. Only about 12 of those families would come forward and be able to prove the existence of their loved one and get some aid. Some of the assistance came from churches, nonprofits and private donors. At Greenfield Hill Congregational in Connecticut, Reverend Alida Ward says she remembers waking up one morning in mid-December.

ALIDA WARD: I walked into the church office, and there was an envelope in my mailbox. And I opened it up, and a check for a quarter million dollars fell out. And there was a note with it that just said, please use this to reach the people who aren't being reached. And that was all it said.

GARSD: The church ended up creating grants for families. One thousand one hundred and six bodies have not been identified from 9/11. The Mexican consulate alone estimates that 16 nationals died that day, but only five are acknowledged at the National September 11 Memorial. Garcia herself has lost contact with the families of the missing except for one person - Chino, the man who showed up at her offices on the morning of 9/11 looking like an apparition caked in white dust.

GARCIA: He always call me on 9/11, every 9/11.

GARSD: She's expecting his call this Saturday, and she knows what he'll say.

GARCIA: Oh, my God, I am so lucky to be alive.

GARSD: He's 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. They swear they were real. Twenty years ago, they swear they were right here.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.