Immigration

How The Flint Water Crisis Is Impacting Undocumented Immigrants

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Louis Singleton receives water filters, bottled water and a test kit from Michigan National Guard Specialist Joe Weaver as clean water supplies are distributed to residents, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016 in Flint, Mich. The National Guard, state employees, local authorities and volunteers have been distributing lead tests, filters and bottled water during the city's drinking water crisis. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Undocumented immigrants facing the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan may be too scared to go to the water distribution centers because they may not be able to produce proper identification, according to a local ABC affiliate.

Lucia, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to the country 23 years ago, has lived in Flint for over a decade. She told ABC that she has been buying bottled water, but that she is too afraid to access the water distribution centers set up around the city for residents.

“I got close to see what they were giving out, and it was water. And the first thing they asked me for was my license,” she said. She left, fearing that she would be arrested or deported if they found out about her immigration status.

The publication added that many of Flint’s roughly 1,000 undocumented residents are likely too afraid to open the doors to volunteers who have been going door-to-door to hand out water, cartridges, and filters. Lucia likely does not have state identification because Michigan law prevents undocumented immigrants from applying for driver’s licenses and other forms of identification without proof of legal presence. Only immigrants covered under a federal deportation deferral initiative known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are eligible for state identification.

Flint has dealt with elevated levels of chemicals in the water system after the city, in an effort to save money, changed the source of drinking water from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014 under a state-appointed emergency manager. The city sent out notices about the elevated levels of chemicals, but didn’t explicitly mention lead. But the state Department of Environmental Quality has since admitted that it didn’t use needed chemicals to be added to the corrosive Flint River water, causing lead to leach from the pipes and contaminate the city’s drinking water. Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in December 2015, while Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) declared a state of emergency in January 2016. National Guards were deployed a week later to distribute clean water and filters.

At least one local church is stepping up efforts to get clean and bottled water out to undocumented immigrants. St. Mary’s Catholic Church is handing out water to community members “with no questions asked, no identification needed,” Kathleen Tomczyk at St. Mary’s Catholic Church told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.

“Our church is in a mixed and diversified neighborhood,” Tomczyk said. “We don’t turn anyone away, regardless of nationality.”

Tomczyk said that the community has been very responsive in light of ABC’s broadcast, noting that by Wednesday night, she had people wanting to help with translation and people wanting to help deliver water. She also said that people from all over Michigan have called, including a couple from Saginaw who brought in 13 cases of water and a woman who wanted to bring in “pallets” of water bottles.

“The community is awesome,” Tomczyk said. “It’s God’s work. He’s bringing out the best in a lot of people.”

St. Mary’s is not the only church stepping up efforts to distribute clean water supplies to Flint residents. Pastor Bobby Jackson at Mission of Hope has been handing out water to homeless and low-income residents since last year. After the city switched water sources and the city distributed literature about the elevated level of chemicals, his church became one of the first responders. “We are the first emergency water site to go into effect,” he told ThinkProgress reporters Erica Hellerstein and Bryce Covert. His church has been distributing about 30 cases every hour.

Still, despite community efforts, Lucia is not the only undocumented immigrant who’s afraid to access emergency relief during disasters. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, James Ziglar, the former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, had to release a statement encouraging undocumented immigrants to contact local law enforcement if they believed that they lost loved ones in the attack. After Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a statement noting that undocumented parents could apply for disaster aid on behalf of their children with legal status.