FEAR OF THE IRISH 9/11 HEROES
Saturday September 2nd 2006
After the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, Steve MacSweeney risked his life and identity to search for survivors. Now, as Caitriona Palmer reports from Washington, five years on, he has become an unintended victim of'the war on terror'
At about 9 am on the morning of September 11, 2001, Steve MacSweeney, a carpenter from Tralee, Co Kerry was taking his coffee break when he heard a shout from a co-worker that a plane had slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.
MacSweeney raced to the roof of the building where he watched in amazement as a second plane roared low over his head, made a sweeping turn and sliced cleanly into the 78th floor of the south tower.
"I didn't even think," remembers MacSweeney, 32, who has lived and worked illegally in the United States since 1998. "I was so astonished and just so blown away by the whole lot."
Standing on the rooftop watching helplessly as the towers burned just streets away, MacSweeney's first instinct was to run towards the scene. A former member of a voluntary search-and-rescue unit in Ireland, he reckoned his skills might be needed on the ground.
"As I went down there the towers started to collapse," said MacSweeney. "There were people running towards me, there was dust coming at me. I tore my shirt and gave two pieces to two different people and another piece to an old woman just to cover their mouths.
"I just remember dust, basically like someone was holding a leaf blower behind a bag of flour. Just dust and everything blowing into your face and people running with cuts, wounds," he said.
Ducking under some police tape, MacSweeney helped evacuate people from the disaster zone. In the confusion and mayhem following the attack, no one asked him any questions. For two and a half weeks he worked on a bucket line 150 people long, passing buckets of debris from one person to the next.
At night he slept on the floor of a nearby sports centre next to police officers, fire fighters and federal officials. On the third day he slipped and cut his arm on a piece of debris, an injury he ignored but one that would require extensive surgery when he emerged from Ground Zero weeks later.
Digging through the rubble he remembers the camaraderie of workers "helpless with hope" in the likelihood of finding survivors. Not once during that time did he lose hope of finding people alive.
"There was a lot of hope because you'd hear rumours that somebody had used a cell phone to make a call," he said. "You'd be so happy thinking there's somebody in there, and they're ok and we can get them out. And you'd just work harder and harder and harder in the hope of getting them out."
MacSweeney and others like him are revered as heroes by Americans for helping the rescue effort in the days after the September 11 attacks. But now he may be forced to leave the country he has called home for years because of a crackdown on illegal immigration, a crackdown prompted by the September 11 attacks and fears of another terrorist attack.
No one asked for his work papers when he rushed to Ground Zero that morning five years ago. But, in an unintended consequence of the 'war on terror', MacSweeney now has to tread carefully lest he run afoul of the increasingly strict rules governing immigrants.
Brian McKenna, an illegal immigrant from Co Monaghan with his own plumbing business, worked alongside MacSweeney at Ground Zero. The irony of the post-9/11 immigration backlash is not lost on him.
"After 9/11, after so much that we'd done that day, when I couldn't renew my driver's licence, that was a real slap in the face for me," said McKenna.
In the months following the attacks, the US Government moved quickly to tighten border security and the rules for issuing drivers' licences - a de facto identity card for Americans. The climate of fear after 9/11 dramatically raised the stakes for illegal workers who, until that time, had lived largely ignored and tolerated.
"There was a major paranoia about people who were different, or were from outside the country, and one of the groups that obviously became a target for that was the undocumented emigrants," said Lena Deevy, executive director of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston.
According to Niall O'Dowd, chairman of the New York based Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR), the new restrictions have had a "catastrophic" effect on the Irish undocumented community in the US.
'Not allowing drivers' licences is really a huge setback for people," said O'Dowd. "Particularly men who have construction work or travel to their jobs, or women who want to drop their kids to school. I think that's been, more than any other single issue, the toughest one to overcome."
The ILIR, with the support of the Irish Government, has been lobbying the US government to ease the plight of the estimated 25,000 undocumented Irish in America by passing comprehensive immigration reform. MacSweeney, and hundreds of other young Irish undocumented have travelled to Washington DC with the ILIR this year to lobby the US Congress on the issue.
But the new restrictions have driven many undocumented Irish deeper into the shadows of American society while many more have decided to pack up and head home to Ireland.
"There is a significant number of undocumented who are leaving because they know there's less hope of immigration reform passing quickly and they also know that it's more difficult to get jobs," said Deevy.
MacSweeney admits that he has struggled with the difficult decision of going back to Ireland but that he has "too much to lose" by leaving the country he now calls home. He sees similar decisions being played out every day in Irish communities in New York.
"I've seen a lot of families torn apart because of this immigration issue. I've seen families going through heartache every day of the week because a lot of them have elderly parents who can't travel," he said. "And the option isn't open for the other person, unless they give up what they've worked extremely hard for over the years over here, and go back with the risk of not coming back."
MacSweeney doesn't think he deserves special recognition because of his work at Ground Zero or that it should lead to a green card. "It was a tragedy and I just did what I could do," he said.
"But at the same time I don't think I should be isolated or set aside as somebody that is taking from the American way, when I was one of the first to get in there," he said.
As America marks the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a debate is raging about the country's longstanding openness to immigrants, with some warning that 'broken borders' are jeopardising security.
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