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The immigrant story we sometimes forget

Filling potholes is a job that’s both respectable and essential

Salvage crews last week continued to remove wreckage from the cargo ship Dali after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.
Salvage crews last week continued to remove wreckage from the cargo ship Dali after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

In the week when one more body was discovered in the Patapsco River, it’s important to remember the names, the six men who lost their lives when Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge plunged into the water after being hit by a massive cargo ship, because so many seem to have forgotten them: Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, Carlos Hernandez, Miguel Luna, José Mynor López, Maynor Suazo Sandoval.

Maybe it’s because of the work they were doing, tough work, repairing potholes in the bridge in the cold, in the middle of the night. It’s the kind of work those who cross the bridge expect to be done without thinking much about who does it or how.

Maybe it’s because of who the men were and where they came from — immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the kind of countries former President Donald Trump definitely doesn’t mean when he complained, as he reportedly did at a recent multimillion-dollar fundraiser in Palm Beach, Fla., that people weren’t immigrating to the United States from “nice” countries “like Denmark.”

Trump is running to lead the country, but only some of it. He hasn’t said much about the Key Bridge tragedy, but he has said a lot about Baltimore, albeit not as a major port city, important to Americans across the country. The city and its citizens are only useful to him as a punch line and problem, a symbol of everything urban his kind of Americans should fear — odd when it’s Trump sitting as a defendant in a criminal trial.

In the same way, he indeed talks about immigrants and asylum-seekers every chance he gets, but only to characterize them as criminals and “animals” from countries no one has heard of, speaking languages no one knows. The men on the bridge don’t fit his narrative of fear and loathing, so their families should not expect a mention or a moment of mourning from this candidate.

Trump squashed a bipartisan bill to actually help solve the border crisis, with the rest of the GOP following his lead, putting to rest any notion that Republicans would be for anything to help the country if it punctured his campaign message of us versus them.

The tactic was on display at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Trump highlighted the murder of 25-year-old Ruby Garcia, allegedly by an undocumented man she knew. Although statistics tell a complex story about who commits crime in America, there are always horrific headlines to advance a message. But one has to wonder about the presumed nominee’s empathy for the victim, rather than his calculation about how the story would play to the crowd, when it turns out that, according to Garcia’s sister, Trump’s anecdote about speaking to the family never happened.

“It’s always been about illegal immigrants,” Mavi Garcia told local television station Target 8. “Nobody really speaks about when Americans do heinous crimes, and it’s kind of shocking why he would just bring up illegals. What about Americans who do heinous crimes like that?

“The focus should be on my sister right now, who she was in life.”

Who were the men on the bridge in life? As cynical as I can be about politics, I was still astonished at how quickly after the Baltimore tragedy politicians segued into arguing over who would pay for repairing an essential port and how the workers and businesses that depend on it would be made whole.

The FBI is already investigating just how and why the collapse happened. So are the victims’ families, according to attorneys. And I think it’s certain that companies found responsible could be fined and even charged. But it doesn’t make sense that all-American help from taxes we all pay, a formerly bipartisan sentiment when crises hit, is now another political battle over which state or American is deserving.

As ridiculous as it sounds, in what seemed a millisecond after the tragedy, there was even blame heaped on Maryland and Baltimore elected officials because of the color of their skin, as though blackness itself is powerful enough to bring down a bridge.

Thank goodness for them, for Maryland Gov. Wes Moore dismissing what he called “foolishness” so he could focus on his job and pledge support for the men, their families and the state. This week, Moore said, “We hope that everyone will respect the request of the family for privacy during this difficult time. As we continue to recover those who have perished, may we never forget them, their loved ones and the commitment they made to work in a profession that bettered the lives of so many Marylanders across the state.”

Moore has signed the Protecting Opportunities and Regional Trade (Port) Act. It offers economic support for those out of work while the port is closed and future education expenses for the children of the victims.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said, “For those still waiting, we join them in their hope and grief that they will have the same closure soon. As I have said from the very first moment, we will continue to do everything in our power to support these families and provide whatever they need to persevere through this unthinkable tragedy.”

There is a special pride in leadership shown in my home state and town, for the concern for workers at a port where my grandfather Clarence Thomas made a good living at a time when longshoreman was a pretty good job for a Black man from St. Mary’s County, Md. He, too, was doing a job many shunned: back-breaking, sometimes dangerous work.

When he died in his 90s, he had a home, a car and a good living earned from work that, like filling potholes on a dark bridge, is still respectable and essential.

Immigrants disproportionately make up the construction crews building this country, another fact that escapes the divisive chatter. Look for them rebuilding whatever replaces the fallen span.

One of them, Maynor Suazo Sandoval, left his home in Honduras two decades ago, looking for a better future. His brother Martin Suazo remembered him on NPR, his generosity and his heart. He said his brother helped his city of Azacualpa, sending resources back home as many immigrants do, “paying for people’s medicines and doctor’s visits, assisting people with disabilities and even sponsoring the youth soccer league,” as the story reported in translation.

His life may have ended in a cold river, but what a legacy he leaves.

It’s one any American could be proud of.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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