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The bridge collapse is an immigration story

A view of the remains of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The span collapsed after it was struck by the Dali, a cargo ship registered in Singapore, about 30 minutes after it left the Port of Baltimore. Screenshots from video released March 26, 2024 by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In “A Day Without a Mexican,” a mock 2004 documentary from filmmaker Sergio Arau, Californians wake up and discover that all of the state’s Mexican immigrants have vanished into thin air.

Panic sets in, and the economy teeters, when there are no more produce pickers or gardeners, no more construction workers or day laborers, no one to provide cheap child care or clean hotel rooms.

One of the most striking things about the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse this week is that the six road workers who plunged to their deaths early Tuesday morning were all immigrants from Central America. A number of the federal, state and local leaders who have been overseeing the rescue and recovery efforts have been quick to point this out.

“It’s a solemn reminder of the contributions and sacrifices that our immigrant community makes in our state and in our country,” U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said during a news conference near the bridge wreckage in Dundalk Wednesday evening.

At the same news conference, Gov. Wes Moore (D) delivered a few words of solidarity and sympathy to the workers’ families in Spanish. Tom Perez, Moore’s former rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination now serving as a special adviser and troubleshooter to President Biden, spoke for about two minutes in Spanish, offering assurances to the victims’ families that the government will try to take care of them.

As the Maryland House of Delegates was preparing to adjourn its floor session Wednesday, Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Anne Arundel), the senior Latino official in the legislature, rose to discuss the “devastating” news.

“These men chose Maryland as their home — they lived here, they worked here, their families lived here,” she said. “They represent what makes our country great. They contribute to the very fabric of what it means to be a Marylander.”

As of Wednesday night, only two of the six highway workers, who were on the bridge patching potholes when the giant container ship ran into the structure, had been found. Maryland State Police Superintendent Roland Butler Jr. said two bodies were recovered from a submerged pickup truck on Wednesday morning. State authorities identified the deceased workers as Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, 35, of Baltimore, and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, 26, of Dundalk.

At this point, the immigration status of the six workers — whether they were in this country legally or were undocumented — is not known. They were from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

But while much is not known about the six victims, this tragedy — along with the deaths of six road crew members along Interstate 695 in 2023, when a speeding car lost control — is leading to a growing recognition among policymakers and the public about the important but often hidden role immigrants play in providing essential services and bolstering the Maryland economy.

Del. Ashanti Martinez (D-Prince George’s). Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

“What this shows us is how vital immigrants are to the infrastructure of the country,” said state Del. Ashanti Martinez (D-Prince George’s), who took over as chair of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus just this week. “When we’re at home asleep, they’re getting up in the middle of the night making sacrifices so we can have commerce and comfort.”

Even with this increasing acknowledgement, immigration remains one of the major flashpoints in American society and a highly combustible political issue. Former President Donald Trump rode his anti-immigrant stance all the way to the White House in 2016, and some polls show immigration and border security is the number one issue for many American voters.

Even in Maryland, which has adopted fairly strong migrant protections over the last several years, the debate over immigration and government services for immigrants can turn nasty. Asked Wednesday whether the tragedy involving the six migrant road workers could change the tenor of the debate over immigration policy or at least provide more recognition for the important services immigrants provide, Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, the largest immigrant services organization in the Mid-Atlantic, replied, “I wish.”

Torres told reporters in a Zoom call Wednesday that two of the workers who are presumed drowned, Maynor Suazo Sandoval, who immigrated from Honduras 17 years ago, and Miguel Luna, who has lived in Maryland for 19 years after immigrating from El Salvador, are CASA members who have received services from the organization over the years. Torres said CASA plans to provide a variety of help to the victims’ families, including financial aid, in the days ahead.

“We are collecting a lot of information from the families about what their needs are,” he said.

In some conservative corners, there have been suggestions that the cargo ship crash was somehow related to immigration policy. On the air this week, Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo mused that the “wide-open border” might be a factor.

Even with this dynamic, members of the Legislative Latino Caucus in Annapolis expressed some hope that the conversation and policy debates over immigration could become a little gentler after the international attention the bridge disaster has generated.

“It is an opportunity for us to think in different ways about our neighbors,” Martinez said.

Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery) said he hopes there will be some recognition that the families of the deceased Maryland construction workers will need government help.

“The construction people, the laborers, a lot of them are immigrants,” he said. “So when we hear a lot of anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric on the House floor, these are the immigrants they are talking about. And now their families are going to have to have our support and love.”

Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert), one of the most vocal conservatives in the General Assembly, said there would be time to assess the tragedy at the Key Bridge and its impact on policy debates — but not yet.

“Life and death are still life and death — that matters more than an immigration debate,” he said. “That’s what should matter now.”

Another Republican, Del. Ric Metzgar, whose Baltimore County district includes Dundalk, the community at the northern end of the Key Bridge span, where many Central Americans have settled for the proximity to blue collar jobs, said he wished immigrants could have a quick path to citizenship.

“They’re hard workers,” he said. “Let’s be honest — they do the work that we don’t want to do.”


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The bridge collapse is an immigration story