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Bridge collapse in Baltimore draws attention to dangerous jobs Hispanic workers face

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Minutes before a cargo ship brought down the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Tuesday morning, the ship's crew sent a mayday signal. That was just enough time for authorities to shut down the bridge to auto traffic, but not enough time to warn the overnight construction crew that was working on the bridge fixing potholes.

Joining me now is Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA, an advocacy organization for immigrants and working-class people in Maryland. Two of the construction crew members were active with the group. Good morning, Mr. Torres.

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GUSTAVO TORRES: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: Recovery workers pulled two bodies out of the Patapsco River yesterday. Four more crew members are missing and presumed dead, including, as we noted, two who were part of your organization. My condolences.

TORRES: Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.

ELLIOTT: Can you tell us a little bit about them?

TORRES: Absolutely. Miguel Luna from El Salvador - he left at 6:30 p.m. Monday evening for work and since had not come home. He's a husband, a father of three, and has called Maryland home for over 19 years. And Maynor Suazo Sandoval, a second CASA member impacted by this tragedy, he has been in this country for the last 17 years from El Salvador - from Honduras, I'm sorry. He was an extraordinary human being as well. Actually, he was also a husband and father of two. The family was gearing up for his birthday celebration on April 27. They were very active in CASA, helping the communities not only way over here, but also in their country of the region. They were an amazing human being, also fighting for immigration reform as well.

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ELLIOTT: You know, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that up to a third of construction workers in 2020 were Hispanic, and many are foreign-born, and that they are at particular risk of fatal injuries because of the type of work that they do. How does this show up in the challenges that workers in your group face?

TORRES: Yeah, that is really, really a reality. In particularly the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metro area, we have around 130,000 immigrants who work in this essential work. And we see - all the time see these kind of accidents. In fact, almost a year ago to the date of the bridge collapse and also on the 695 highway, six highway construction workers, half of them Latinos, were killed in Maryland after being struck by a speeding car. So that is the kind of situation that we see all the time. And they are people who are undocumented or they have TPS, which is a legal status - they cannot qualify to become U.S. citizens.

ELLIOTT: You're talking about temporary protected status.

TORRES: And that is, in part, the reasons why they feel these kind of challenges, because they don't have health insurance and they are very scared to report. So that is the kind of the situation that we face in the D.C. area and beyond.

ELLIOTT: Now, in addition to the victims and their families, there must be many more immigrants among the 15,000 people who work at the Port of Baltimore, for example. How does this tragedy affect the larger immigrant community in the region?

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TORRES: It's huge. I mean, it's a big impact. And again, it's because the way - how we feel right now, we feel under attack. As you know, it's a lot of attacks to the immigrant community all the time. And we are scared, and people are scared. I know that people are super scared about this, and this kind of tragic is bringing more additional pain to our community. But it's a community who are ready to keep fighting, a community who really, really want to make a difference in this country. And we are going to keep moving forward and make sure that we are going to finally one day pass immigration reform, or at least TPS. And the President Biden had that power to be able to provide legal status for our families.

ELLIOTT: Gustavo Torres is the executive director of CASA. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TORRES: I really appreciate that, and thank you for the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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