A Migrant Mother’s Bind

Far From Family She Supports but Jobless After 9-11

Two visits and 10 hours of waiting—only to be turned away—at the city's Family Assistance Center on Pier 94 did not undo Jane D. Nor did the dozen ID checks, the barrage of 'do you speak English?' queries, or the requests for the social security number she once bought and fears might not be legit.

The teddy bear, in the end, was what pushed Jane D. to tears. It came with the first form of aid she'd been able to wrangle after a week of struggling with bureaucracy, a plastic bag filled with donated giveaways at Asociación Tepeyac de New York, a migrant labor rights organization. Also in the bag was a 300-minute international calling card, which along with the stuffed animal made Jane D., 39, think of her two young children in the Philippines. She mothers them in carefully clocked, 15-minute phone calls and works here to support them. Or did work, until she lost her nanny job in the September 11 attacks.

She had cared for the five-year-old daughter of a couple who lived on Church Street, just off Chambers, and worked near the World Trade Center. She was headed to work that morning when the towers collapsed. And like nearly everyone who survived that day, she fled.

An out-of-work immigrant nanny leaves the city’s disaster aid center with nothing.
photo: Keith Bedford
An out-of-work immigrant nanny leaves the city’s disaster aid center with nothing.

She has since tried numerous times to contact her employers, but has failed to get through on what no longer seems to be a working number. "They never called me," she said. Declining to imagine the worst, she theorized they might merely have moved out of the city without bothering to notify her. She considered going to their home, but was deterred by the police checkpoints in the area—the word in immigrant communities is that the authorities are cracking down on illegals in the name of heightened security. For this reason, she also chooses to withhold her full name.

Jane D. is hardly the only one in New York out of a job, as the line of thousands at last week's Madison Square Garden job fair made clear. Nor is she the only nanny. In serious need of money, she hit the placement agencies just days after the attacks, only to learn that "no employers are calling [them], because of the tragedy," she said. "A lot of employers died. Or a lot of employers are moving out of the city, leaving us jobless. [The agencies] said, 'Let's just let this settle and then we'll give you a ring.' And they never called."

Owners of several job agencies last week said her experience was not uncommon. "There was a slowdown, definitely," said Manuel Posadas of First Resources. "The economy plays a big role; timing plays a big role," he said. At even the Pavilion Agency, which caters to New York's "super wealthy and famous," there's been some impact from September 11, according to co-owner Clifford Greenhouse. He said one recent applicant was an office worker who'd lost her job and had gone to the agency seeking domestic work. And one of Pavilion's nannies lost her position with a Tribeca couple when they decided to relocate to California.

Jane D. said she knows she is one among many whose downgraded lives here have "affected entire families abroad." She came here last May on a tourist visa "because of economic reasons. We don't have work in the Philippines. You have a [college] degree, you end up unemployed." She met many nannies and housekeepers who share her circumstances at CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a Bronx-based nonprofit that mobilizes for domestic workers' rights, among other activities.

In fact, there were dozens who appeared to be immigrants on line for financial relief at the Family Assistance Center last week, despite the utter lack of public assistance legally available to most of them. Unique life circumstances threatened to disappear in a sea of low-income need, as individuals became numbers on manila folders.

Jane D.'s caseworkers—who took the native Tagalog-speaker's imperfect English to mean imperfect intelligence and addressed her accordingly—never learned that she had been a student activist at the University of the Philippines in Manila and an organizer for political prisoners during the Marcos years.

Deaths in the family pulled her from political work in Manila and back to her hometown, a rural farming village eight hours away, where she pitched in with her rice-farming parents. She married a man named Larry who, from her lips, is always "my dear husband," and with whom she has a five-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Grasping for a phrase in English that would adequately express her sadness in their separation, she settled for "It's breaking my heart."

"Last night, we were on the phone," she said. "I heard my daughter saying in the background, 'Mama, Papa is crying.' "

But with two elderly parents to support—she blames International Monetary Fund policies for the high-interest-rate farm debts they've incurred over the years—and ambitions of sending her children through college, she is in an anguishing bind. Unable now to earn the money she came here for, she is also unable to return until she does.

Matt Braslow, a young volunteer with the American Red Cross, knew none of this when he sat down across from Jane D. at Pier 94 on the afternoon of October 12, nor did he ask. He confessed to being absolutely stumped when she explained her dilemma: Nannies don't typically get paid in checks or get formal contracts when they are hired, so she could not produce the required proof that she had lost a full-time, $10-an-hour job. Moreover, Braslow had thought of another reason for her not to get aid.

"What I'm thinking is," he said, "as a nanny, you can get work anywhere. You could be hired in midtown, you could be hired on the Upper East Side. But people who worked for 'XYZ' corporation, their office building is there [in Lower Manhattan]—it's not like a home." It took perhaps longer than it should have for Braslow to be persuaded that, by his reasoning, an accountant or financial consultant at XYZ corporation could also be told to go look for a job elsewhere rather than seek disaster relief.

But Jane D. might have saved her breath, for Braslow eventually concluded her situation was "a real pickle" with which neither the Red Cross nor any agency, really, could help and recommended she find herself an attorney. Jane D. politely waited until later to dismiss his advice as ludicrous. "I hate to ask for relief; it is turning me upside down," she said. "They're telling me it's not a profession, like I could just find a job anywhere. Like I shouldn't be here."

A second visit to Pier 94 last Tuesday morning won her kinder treatment but just as little help. "We need to have something to show you were working and how much you made," said a volunteer with Safe Horizon, the organization to which the city seemed to be referring most visitors in need of emergency funds. Jane D. came away with the promise of a phone call should requirements change.

The last resort of many in her situation has been Asociación Tepeyac on West 14th Street, normally an organization for Mexican migrant laborers but now an oasis to any immigrant worker suffering in the September 11 aftermath. There, Jane D. met last Tuesday afternoon with staffer Omar Saracho, who quickly grasped the problem and deemed it surmountable. He coaxed the on-site Red Cross volunteers to push Jane D.'s case through, and she received a $50 grocery voucher and an assurance that checks covering her $300 rent and emergency cash needs would soon arrive in the mail.

And she got the bag with the fluffy white teddy bear. The volunteers mistook her tears for gratitude, but Jane D. later explained, "I was crying because I want to be with my children. But I cannot afford it."


Reporting assistance: Whitney Kassel

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