Analysis Environment

For Flint’s Undocumented Community, Rumors and Confusion Amid the Water Emergency

Tina Vasquez

Despite reports that the “no ID, no water” policy has ended, the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative chair told Rewire that this is still a policy in some corners of Flint.

Read more of our articles on Flint’s water emergency here.

Reports emerged last week that water distribution centers in Flint, Michigan, required government-issued IDs from those seeking clean water, making it almost impossible for undocumented residents to access. Local organizations interviewed by Rewire say undocumented Flint residents have been denied much more than clean water, including information about the water crisis in their language and access to water filters and lead testing to determine if they and their children have been poisoned.

San Juana Olivares, chair of the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative, has been working with other local organizations through St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Flint’s Eastside, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, to raise awareness about the water crisis, as some members of the city’s undocumented community of about 1,000 are still unaware they can’t drink the city’s lead-contaminated tap water.

“All of the information sent to Flint residents about the water was in English, nothing was sent in Spanish or Arabic or Chinese,” Olivares told Rewire. “We’re canvassing the neighborhood to make people aware they can’t drink the water. As recently as Sunday, we met a family that was still drinking the water. Some people are still finding out, some only found out a week ago.”

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Olivares began hearing reports as far back as September that undocumented families were being denied water filters through city programs, all of which required “valid identification.”

“This goes back much further than this month when people started to post pictures of fire department signs saying ‘ID required,’” she said. “We worked with a family that could not get a water filter in September because of their status. We even had a social worker call to see if the family could qualify for a filter, but they were asked if the parents had a valid ID or if they were U.S. citizens. When they obviously said no, they were told they didn’t qualify for a filter.”

The family ended up having to buy their own filter, which didn’t last long. They were finally able to obtain another when the National Guard arrived earlier this month. But this inconsistent response from state and federal officials has resulted in a lot of confusion among undocumented families.

“It’s very confusing to the community to be told no by some people and yes by others, and sometimes it’s the same groups giving different answers,” Olivares said.

The water crisis began when, in an effort to save money, state officials changed the source of the city’s drinking water from Lake Huron via Detroit to the Flint River in April 2014. According to reports, the city sent out notices after the switch regarding elevated levels of chemicals, but it failed to explicitly mention lead. The state Department of Environmental Quality has since admitted it didn’t add the necessary chemicals to prevent the Flint River water from corroding pipes, causing the contamination. A state of emergency was declared by Flint’s mayor in December 2015, though Gov. Rick Snyder (R) did not declare a state of emergency until this month, when the National Guard was deployed to distribute clean water and water filters.

Despite reports that the “no ID, no water” policy has ended, the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative chair told Rewire that this is still a policy in some corners of Flint. The Joint Information Center, which is handling the press related to the water crisis, told Rewire ID isn’t required by the city, but Olivares said that she received information as recently as Tuesday that IDs were still being requested at distribution centers. Olivares said she assumes the ID policy was instated because the city wanted to keep track of who received filters, and there were rumors that individuals from other cities were taking water they didn’t need from distribution centers in Flint.

In a call with Rewire Wednesday morning, Ken Cooper with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office reiterated that it’s the state and county’s position that no ID should be required to access clean water.

“Early on, there was a lot of confusion, but [requiring ID] is not our position,” Cooper said.

Water and filters aren’t the only things the undocumented community in Flint has been denied access to, according to local groups. 

Health experts recommend that all of Flint’s children be treated as though they have been exposed to lead. Specifically, the city is mandating that children who live in Flint, live in a home using Flint water, or who attend school, child care, or often spend time with a caregiver in Flint to undergo a blood-lead screening test.

In Olivares’ canvassing, she informs undocumented families of symptoms they need to be aware of in case of lead poisoning, but as of right now, she said there isn’t much that can be done screening-wise for those without an ID or access to health-care services.

“This ID policy for screening is also impacting a lot of people in Flint. We have worked with a family that took their children to get screened, but because they couldn’t provide a valid ID, they were told there was nothing that could be done. Their children were not tested,” Olivares said. “What we’re working on very hard is to get a medical group to come to the church and provide testing. As of right now, there is no place in Flint where undocumented people can go for testing without a valid ID.”

Cooper told Rewire that testing “will be done on anyone who wants it,” and that work is being done to get churches the resources they need to provide testing.

“This is what I overheard, there are some conversations I’m not privy to, but when they ask for ID it’s more to get an address,” Cooper said. “From what I understand, they need an address. Why, I don’t know, I assume for reporting purposes. As long as they can provide proof of address, undocumented people should have access to testing. By this afternoon, things can change. Things are developing and evolving.”

Cooper told Rewire that on Wednesday morning the Mexican Consulate in Detroit was in touch with Genesee County sheriff’s captain expressing concerns over IDs being required to access water and other services.

“Our captain is in touch with the local press to reach out to the Hispanic community and the undocumented community to tell them we’re not checking IDs and we’re not coming after them. We’re going to make sure the churches in the area get whatever they need, we just need to know how much to get them,” Cooper said.

Undocumented communities have been forced to rely on word-of-mouth regarding the crisis, the severity of which many remain unaware of. After rumors circulated that a dead body was found in a lake, some undocumented residents simply boiled their tap water, compelling the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative to release information in English and Spanish warning that boiling water doesn’t remove lead. (Different news reports confirm that a body was found in a Flint-area lake this past summer, but it’s impossible to know what story, if any, prompted the boiled water myth.)

Some residents believe the City of Flint understood the impact the water emergency might have on the undocumented community, including that they would likely not be able to access filters, bottled water, and testing due to lack of ID, but that they simply didn’t care.

“They know there’s a Hispanic community here, but they’ve always been underserved,” Olivares said. “There’s always a requirement in place to receive needed services. At food banks here, you have to have a valid ID or you don’t get food.” Some local food banks, including the Flint Salvation Army and the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, confirmed via phone that a valid ID is required to participate in their food programs.

The address of Flint’s Metropolitan Baptist Tabernacle Church was circulated on social media as a place that provided water without requiring ID. Church deacon William Chapman told Rewire that he was confused by the ID requirement of many distribution centers.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Chapman said. “If people need water, you give it to them. I’ve seen people providing water to dogs, so why wouldn’t you give it to your fellow human beings?”

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