Volunteers were canvassing a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the east side of Flint, Michigan, on Sunday, when they ran into a woman who was several months pregnant. After listening to them explain that the tap water she had been drinking contained high levels of lead, the woman burst into tears.
“She was like, ‘how is this going to affect my baby?’” canvasser Samantha Magdaleno, a board member for the immigrant rights organization One Michigan, recalled. The woman told Magdaleno that she had been drinking and bathing in the water, and anxiously asked the volunteer about how that would potentially impact her baby’s health.
The woman was one of many Spanish-speaking people volunteers encountered who was unaware of the dangerously high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply, and has continued to use the contaminated tap water. Juani Olivares, chair of the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative, who helped coordinate the volunteer efforts, estimated that 95 percent of the people volunteers encountered over the weekend were in the dark about the lead-contaminated water and the serious health risks it poses, particularly to children.
“There was a family who has a four-month-old baby and they had no idea,” Olivares said. “She was bathing the baby and she’s breastfeeding and cooking with the water.”
Magdaleno added that some people in the neighborhood learned about the lead-contaminated water from relatives living outside the country. “They had family members in Mexico calling them because they saw it on Univision. So they had people that weren’t even living in the neighborhood finding out and telling them.”
It wasn’t just that the people they met didn’t know about the contaminated water. Canvassers uncovered other issues, too: Some of those in the know, especially undocumented immigrants, were afraid of going to any of the five fire stations designated as water resource and distribution hubs by the state. Up until recently, the sites were asking for identification before handing out water, closing the door on the city’s roughly 1,000 undocumented immigrants who are prevented under Michigan law from applying for driver’s licenses and other forms of identification without proof of legal presence.
On Friday, Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) office issued a press release announcing that people no longer needed to show identification to receive water and resources from the fire stations, but concerns still linger, and some people who have tried to get water say they’re still being asked to show identification by staff at the distribution centers.
“The question now is really to what extent do the distribution centers understand that the policy has changed?” said Susan Reed, an attorney at the Michigan Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Because we’re still getting reports about people being asked for ID. We’re trying to make sure that the actual staff at the distribution centers know that the policy has changed.”
Flint’s water crisis dates back to April 2014, when an emergency manager appointed by Synder decided to switch the city’s water supply to the highly corrosive Flint River, causing lead to leach from aging pipes into the city’s water supply. The emergency manager, Darnell Earley, claimed the switch would save Flint money, but leaked documents suggest that the city could have saved more money by keeping the Detroit water.
Flint residents picked up on the differences in the water supply almost immediately — it looked, tasted, and smelled funny — but the administration assured them that the water was safe to drink, and so many continued to use the lead-contaminated tap water. In September, a report found that the number of infants and children with above-average levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled since officials changed the source of drinking water.
The city switched the water supply back to Detroit in October; two months later, the mayor of Michigan declared a state of emergency.
The crisis quickly turned into a national scandal. Lead exposure in children in particular can have irreversible health consequences and can permanently impact the development of the brain and the nervous system. President Obama declared a federal emergency in January and Snyder activated the National Guard to distribute water.
In spite of the added resources and exposure, the Obama administration’s move to step up deportations of women and children across the country have made undocumented immigrants in Flint even more hesitant to seek and receive help, advocates say. Although National Guard officers and state police are handing out water and information, many undocumented immigrants are hesitant to welcome uniformed officers into their homes. Some weren’t even willing to open the door for canvassers over the weekend.
“There’s some very unfortunate timing with heightened immigration enforcement being announced,” Reed explained. “And the fact that people going door-to-door with water were uniformed state police and National Guard. Well, that’s bad timing, to have uniformed officers delivering that message.”
Although many of the people the canvassers spoke with did notice that the water appeared off, they weren’t sure exactly what was wrong. Some opted to boil the water, which doesn’t actually remove lead and can in fact increase the lead concentration in water.
“We had to explain it to them and some of them were upset because the kids were having skin issues, their hair was falling out,” said the Hispanic/Latino Collaborative’s Olivares. “When people first found out, they became very concerned. They were like, ‘what do we do? Why don’t we get any information? If we have issues, who is going to treat my child? Or what about myself, if I don’t have insurance?’ There’s a lot of questions we can’t answer.”
Reed is also concerned about the availability of follow-up health services for people who will need monitoring or long-term care. “Undocumented folks and even many documented folks don’t have access to primary care,” she said. “What’s the plan for ensuring people who aren’t eligible for full scope Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act are going to get any follow-up health care that they need?” A representative from the Genesee County Health Department told ThinkProgress that identification was asked of people seeking lead testing at clinics, but not required.
The Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative is now distributing flyers translated into Spanish and passed out 1,000 information packets in Spanish on Sunday. They say flyers with information about the lead contamination and directions for using water filters thus far compiled by the the Flint Water Task Force have been handed out only in English, not Spanish. The Task Force, meanwhile, says that it has also translated the information from English to Spanish, which Magdaleno said she has not seen nor has anyone she’s talked to.
“If it’s out there, I’d love to get it because we spent a lot of time translating what they sent out to Spanish ourselves,” she explained. The Task Force did not respond to ThinkProgress’ inquiry about Spanish-language flyer distribution.
The Latino Collaborative is accepting donations, and for now there seems to be enough water to go around. But Olivares worries about the long-term sustainability of their efforts. She suspects that in a few weeks, the 500 cases of water they have collected and store at the nearby St. Mary’s Catholic Church will be depleted. Then what?
“This is a huge concern for me,” she said. “This is going to be an ongoing problem until they fix the issue and finding funds for everyone in the community is going to be extremely hard. What are we going to do once the country moves on?”