From his bustling travel agency in Jackson Heights, Orlando Tobon is a linchpin of Queens’ Colombian community. Hundreds of immigrants turn to him, whether to book the cheapest flights back home, fill out a tax return or translate documents for their green card applications. But he has also won the trust and admiration of his community for another reason: He has raised enough money to fly home to Colombia the bodies of hundreds of undocumented immigrants who die in New York City.
Tobon got involved in this work about 20 years ago, when he accompanied a neighbor, also from Colombia, to the Jamaica Hospital morgue to claim her sister’s body after a fatal car accident. Tobon was surprised when a hospital worker told him that she thought the victim was lucky. “She said, ‘At least she got someone to claim her body. Look at the two bodies over there. They are also from Colombia. Nobody claims them.’” Tobon recalls.
That was enough to make him realize that not only did many Colombians die alone in New York but even then their fates were uncertain. So Tobon became one of a handful of immigrants in New York who navigate the tortured route to bury the friendless and often undocumented dead, whether it’s identifying bodies, finding visas for families to attend funerals, or raising the money to fly people from whence they came.
“Their families are all poor and have no money to pay for sending the bodies back,” says Tobon, who recently made arrangements for a 27-year-old mother of two and drug mule who died of an overdose when the drug containers hidden in her stomach burst. “If nobody helps them, the bodies would be thrown away.”
Thrown away, in this case, means that the city would have buried them with other unclaimed bodies in its potter’s field, a public cemetery on Hart Island in the Bronx. To Tobon and many immigrants, there is little that differentiates this place from a garbage dump. The unclaimed are placed in cheap pinewood coffins and buried one on top of another by inmates from nearby Riker’s Island prison, in common graves holding 150 bodies. There are no gravestones. There is a solitary monument erected in 1948 with a cross and the word “peace” engraved on the front.
It seems that little about the cemetery has changed since the 101-acre island was first put into use in 1869. It is now home to more than 750,000 bodies; about 900 adults are buried there each year.
“We call the potter’s field luan fen gang in Chinese, meaning body piles,” says Amy Mak, President of Ng Fook Funeral Services, a funeral house in Chinatown. “It’s the last place one would like to end up after one dies because we believe when bodies are piled up, the souls will never rest.”
That is the fate of many of the invisible and unidentified. The city’s Medical Examiner waits longer than its usual two weeks before sending a body to Potter’s Field if it is sure the family is making plans to claim their relative. But the city has been known to send an unidentified immigrant to the cemetery before families can be traced.
This is what happened to Yan Jun Zhang, a Chinese immigrant whose headless body was found in Chinatown in the summer of 2003. Zhang was eventually identified and his family located in China. It took two months for Steven Wong, a community leader in New York, to get in touch with Zhang’s wife and get the U.S. embassy to verify her authorization for a funeral and cremation, but by then it was too late. Wong went to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner only to learn that Zhang’s body had been buried in Potter’s Field. A funeral director helped Wong go through the disinterment process, which took another month.
“The whole process is just so complicated. It seemed you were involved in endless paperwork,” said Wong. “When the family is not here, it can be very frustrating.”
Wong became involved in the issue when he helped bury six unclaimed Chinese immigrants’ bodies in the Rose Hill Cemetery in New Jersey. The six had jumped to their deaths off the Rockaway coast from the infamous smuggling boat Golden Venture in 1993. “I don’t support smuggling. But since they’ve been here, they at least deserve a decent funeral,” says Wong.
For undocumented immigrants, being unidentified and placed in a mass grave is hardly the only mark of disrespect society may give them after death. Even when their families are found, often in their home countries, it’s only the beginning of a bitter struggle.
For instance, they receive no help from the city, which gives poor families up to $800 for funerals. But the state law that mandates this help applies only to legal residents.
So Fagui Lin, an immigrant from rural China, could not turn to the city to bury his relative Lin Jian Chun. In 2002, Chun was shot to death delivering food in Brooklyn, and he died owing thousands to the gangs that smuggled him to the country.
Much of the problem comes from the nature of immigration itself, placing loved ones far from the deceased. Lin is now trying to put to rest his nephew-in-law Qing Zheng, who was killed in a car accident in Chinatown early in May. He is helping to collect the documents needed to secure visas for Zheng’s wife and two sons so they can attend the funeral here.
Lin is not optimistic about the chances. “Most likely, they won’t get the visa, just like what happens to everyone else in the same situation,” he says. Since he came to the United States in the early 1990s, Lin has seen several dozen Fujianese die, most of whom were smuggled here. Each time the State Department has denied their family members’ visa applications.
“Many of these people, just like Zheng, hadn’t seen their families for more than 10 years,” says Lin. “I just wish the U.S. embassy had the mercy to give them the last chance to see each other.”
“[Deceased immigrants’] families would have to go through the normal visa process and meet the criteria,” says Nancy Beck, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State. “If someone was here illegally, it is difficult for family members to qualify for a visa.”
Not being able to get a visa gets expensive, because the only remaining option is to ship the deceased back, to be laid to rest with their loved ones as witnesses. In many Latin American countries, cremation is taboo, so that isn’t an option. Tobon must raise $2,070 to ship each body, a discount price he gets because of his long-term relationship with the airlines who otherwise charge $6,000 for the six-hour trip.
Immigrants from countries that are further away, such as China, often can’t afford to ship back a body; costs can easily exceed $10,000. Many Chinese who left in search of the American dream arrive back in an urn of ashes sent via UPS.
Even if everything goes smoothly, the costs of a funeral can be a big burden for some families. In many cases money the deceased person sent home from the United States was the family’s only source of income. Over the past five years, activists in the Chinese community have established the Celestial Love Foundation and the Chinese Perfect End Inc., two nonprofits that help finance funerals. Tobon is also thinking of starting a permanent fund in the Colombian community so that he won’t have to rush to a Spanish-language radio station to call for donations each time tragedy strikes.
There is one public entity that supports the burial of the undocumented, the state Workers’ Compensation insurance system. Worker’s comp can create a sense of injustice for families because of its bureaucratic love of paperwork. The system will reimburse all funeral expenses and provide a pension for the survivors when a worker dies on the job, even if he or she is undocumented.
Maria, the widow of a Mexican construction worker who died in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in April 2001 had reason to think from the program would help. Her husband was killed at work, crushed by a falling steel beam. As a result, she and their four children were entitled under Workers’ Compensation to two-thirds of her husband’s weekly wage and reimbursement of the cost of his funeral and burial.
But in December 2003, when Maria (whose lawyer requested she only be identified by her first name) was first granted the compensation, she was disappointed. She got less than half of the $8,000 she said she spent on his funeral because the funeral home in her small village in Mexico couldn’t provide valid receipts. At $260, her weekly survivors’ benefit was also lower than it might have been because she could not prove that her late husband’s salary, paid in cash, totaled at least $600 weekly.
“Some immigrants live in an invisible economy,” says Mayra Peters-Quintero, the supervising attorney at the Immigrants Rights Clinic of the New York University, who handled Maria’s case. “To bring them out of the shadows to get their compensation is complicated because you have to prove their existence first.”
The ability of survivors of the undocumented to benefit from workers compensation is also being challenged in some state legislatures, like Virginia’s. And recent court cases related to undocumented workers injured on the job have called into question the ability of survivors to secure compensation through civil lawsuits.
Rather than being furious, Tobon’s response to the situation is a deep sigh. “These people are poor and have a miserable life. And when they die, they are treated miserably,” he says. “What can I say?”