Wednesday, 27 January 2016 00:00

Undocumented immigrants in Flint say they’ve been denied free water and are scared to get help

Written by Casey Tolan |
A volunteer goes door to door with bottled water. A volunteer goes door to door with bottled water. Sarah Rice

While the state government mobilizes a massive response to the water crisis in Flint, handing out bottled water and filters to residents affected by lead-contaminated tap water, undocumented residents here feel left out.

In interviews with Fusion, a half dozen undocumented people said that either they’ve been turned away from free water or are worried that they’ll be deported if they try to get help. Some who don’t speak English only learned about the problems with the water in the last few days, and have been drinking contaminated tap water for months.

Officials at some fire stations—where the National Guard is distributing free bottled water and filters—have asked residents for a form of identification. Immigrants in Michigan without legal status are unable to receive drivers licenses or state IDs.

“I went to ask for water from the fire station, and they asked for my social security number, so I left,” said Estella Arias, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. “I feel bad that I can’t get the help… I don’t want to expose my kids to lead.”

State officials say that as of Friday night, they are no longer turning anyone away for lack of identification, and were only asking in the first place in order to track where their resources are going.

But undocumented people here say that policy is not being implemented across the board. Officials at some fire stations simply hand anyone who walks in a case of water, while others demand identification.

“Once word of mouth ripples through the community that you have to have ID, it’s too late,” said Susan Reed, the managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Moreover, when National Guard officers go door to door to deliver water to elderly and disabled people, undocumented immigrants are unlikely to open their doors. Rumors are flying about the Obama administration’s undocumented immigration raids nationwide, and on social media, immigrants encourage one another to keep the door shut.

There’s also a lack of awareness about the water problem to begin with. Most Flint residents have known not to drink the tap water for months, at least since state officials acknowledged the elevated lead levels in October. But with no local Spanish-language radio station or TV channel, some undocumented people who don’t speak much English simply don’t know about what’s going on.

Maria, another undocumented immigrant who asked not to use her last name, said she only heard about the water problem three days ago, and had been drinking tap water regularly until then. She’s developed a bad rash on her legs, and thinks it’s from the water. Like most undocumented, though, she doesn’t have any health insurance.

If National Guard troops were to come and knock on her door, Maria said, she wouldn’t open it.

“Rule number one is never open the door,” she said. And she has good reason: three decades ago, when she lived in Texas, immigration officers came knocking. “My daughter opened the door, and they took us,” she said—her family was deported to Mexico. (“But we came back,” she added with a laugh.)

When no one answers the door at a house, officers leave a flyer with information about how to get free water delivered—but it’s only in English. The directions for using some of the free water filters, and for when to replace them, are also only in English.

Churches and advocacy groups here are mobilizing to address the problem. At the Spanish-language mass on Sunday morning, volunteers at Our Lady of Guadalupe church handed out free bottled water and filters donated by the Red Cross, no questions asked. Arias went home with a big case of water in her backseat.

“It’s a tough situation for the undocumented because they’re the ones who really need it,” said Raul Garcia, the parish council president.

Officials at another church on the city’s predominantly Latino east side—where blocks are dotted with vacant lots—also organized a neighborhood Spanish-language canvas on Sunday.

Flint’s Latino community is mostly Mexican. Advocates estimate that there are about 1,000 undocumented people in the area. In the ’50s and ’60s, many Mexicans were recruited for jobs at the General Motors plants here, and eventually brought their families with them.

Now, in a city and state that are declining in population, the bilingual Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the only Catholic churches in the area with a growing congregation.

Blanca Hernandez, an undocumented churchgoer, said she was drinking the tapwater until a few months ago, when she heard about the problem from friends. Now she uses only bottled water, even to bathe her two-month-old grandson. Her family ends up spending hundreds of dollars a month on bottled water—but she doesn’t want to go to the fire stations for free water in fear of being asked for ID.

“I’m scared,” she said over a meal of rice and beans in the church cafeteria after mass. “I just stay home, go to church, and that’s it.”

Even those who have more secure immigration status are affected. Jessica Olivares, who is married to an American citizen and finishing her adjustment of status paperwork, said that without the ability to work legally, she has struggled to pay for packs of bottled water.

“Those cases go fast,” she said. “I can’t go to school, I can’t work because of my status.”

For some, the idea that drinking water would be contaminated in the United States—the country they risked so much to find a better life in—is hard to believe.

“In Mexico we drink the water all the time and nothing happens,” Maria said. “It’s crazy that this is happening in America.”

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