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Undocumented workers face hardship

BY HEATHER MOYER | NEW YORK | October 22, 2001

"The children of the unemployed are getting more scared. We really want to help them."

—Teresa Garcia

The issue is slowly coming to light, but undocumented workers are still among the people who have a very difficult time receiving help in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A few weeks ago, a group of about 200 undocumented Mexican workers who worked in the World Trade Center started receiving much need assistance -- but there are still many, many out there, said Joel Magallan Reyes of the Tepeyac Association.

Tepeyac is a social service non-profit agency in Manhattan aimed at assisting Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented.

Reyes, Tepeyac's executive director, said the organization is doing everything it can to help the workers affected by the terrorist attacks, but the road has been rough. "I had a journalist recently ask me what's different about our office now -- and I said 'well, before (September 11) we worked with various small groups of people coming in here and there for help. And now the new thing is that they're all coming in for help,' " he said.

Many of the undocumented people worked in restaurants in the World Trade Center or in other small businesses in that area. The major problem that exists now, said Church World Service Disaster Response Facilitator Joanne Hale, is that either these people aren't aware that there is help for them or they're too afraid to ask for it because they might be deported.

Hale has been working closely with Reyes and Tepeyac to get them the help they need.

Reyes said some of his clients that have approached the family assistance centers, set up in New York City since the attacks, have a harder time then those with U.S. papers. He said his clients have to show their Mexican identification six or seven times and still aren't always allowed in, when others just show their U.S. identification once and are let in. "Many are also intimidated because they don't know English very well," he added.

And when those that try to get help do receive it, it comes in the form of a check. "This is a big problem because many of my clients don't even have bank accounts," Reyes said.

Some federal and state agencies have approached Reyes to help, but he's been very apprehensive to accept what these groups call help. "Sometimes they don't show ID, and sometimes even if they do, it's hard to trust them," he said.

If agencies want to help his undocumented clients, said Reyes, then they need to help the undocumented workers get proper IDs that will always be accepted at the assistance centers.

Hale has so far been met with resistance when approaching city emergency officials about meeting with the Tepeyac staff to help with the ID and other problems. Reyes is open to other options as well, though. "If it's impossible for us to get IDs, they why can't we have someone from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) or the City here in our office to help anyone who came in?" said Reyes.

The staff at Tepeyac is planning a press conference next week to bring more attention to their needs. "We need something else, most of this relief money goes to foundations and the people aren't getting enough," said Reyes. Many of the undocumented workers aren't getting enough cash to buy enough groceries for their family, they only get so much from the agencies helping, he added.

While the staff at Tepeyac isn't very large, their work could be described as such, as their Manhattan-based office is usually filled with volunteers, friends, and those seeking assistance. Since the attacks, they've been holding help sessions every Tuesday and Thursday for anyone in their community who needs it.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has offered case management training to Tepeyac in order to assist the organization in its efforts. Tepeyac is also seeking funding for another staff person who could take on some of the work.

The organization also wants to set up a program for affected children. "The children of the unemployed are getting more scared," said Tepeyac Finance

Director Teresa Garcia. "We really want to help them."

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