Undocumented immigrants in the South denied access to water, electricity, and gas

"Every human being should have access to water regardless of their immigration background."

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Sixteen localities in six southern states have been restricting access to basic utility services, including gas, water, and electricity, according to nonprofit advocacy organization Project South, which sent letters to the cities Monday demanding an end to discriminatory practices like requiring U.S.-issued photo identification and social security numbers in order to receive public services.

Project South asserted that Latinx immigrants in various cities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas, who cannot provide social security numbers and IDs have been overwhelmingly impacted by the restrictions, which have left countless residents without the basic utilities needed to live.

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“It’s really hard to tell [how many people have been affected],” Project South’s legal and advocacy director Azadeh Shahshahani told ThinkProgress. “It could be thousands, it could be more than that. But, by definition, we’re talking about vulnerable communities, people without social security numbers.”

The practice of requiring photo ID and social security numbers is not mandated by local or state law. It also violates federal laws, including the Privacy Act of 1974, which forbids the denial of government services on the basis of a person’s refusal to share their social security number, as well as the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits policies that discriminate on the basis of a number of factors, including race.

“Access to water and utilities is a human right, It’s a fundamental human right,” Shahshahani added, pointing to the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognize access to basic utilities as linked to the right to life and human dignity. “Every human being should have access to water regardless of their immigration background.”

Shahshahani said she and her colleagues first learned about the issue in 2009, when coalition partners in LaGrange, Georgia found that several undocumented immigrants in the city were unable to receive utilities. The denial of basic services in that city also extends to any individuals who have unrelated court debt owed to the government — another discriminatory policy that overwhelming affects the Black community.

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In 2017, Project South, along with several other advocacy organizations, filed a lawsuit against the city asking the court to permanently block the practices. The lawsuit is currently pending in the state’s appellate court.

“We then came to realize that this is not particular to LaGrange,” Shahshahani said. “We know about these 16 places, but that list is not comprehensive.”

In some cases, these practices can be attributed to ignorance on the part of utilities services, some of whom told Shahshahani that they “genuinely did not know this practice was illegal.” When Project South learned in 2016 that East Point, Georgia, was imposing similar utilities restrictions, for instance, they met with city officials and convinced them to allow residents to use other forms of identification, including credit or debit cards, foreign passports, birth certificates, or work permits, instead of their social security numbers.

“But in other cases, it might be a more sinister attempt behind these policies,” Shahshahani said, adding that the current anti-immigrant climate hasn’t helped in ensuring immigrant rights are protected.

“We are hopeful,” she continued. “We have already heard from a couple of [the cities] … If others don’t respond, we will potentially be talking to the city attorneys.”