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?”

Commentary Abortion

It’s Time for an Abortion Renaissance

Charlotte Taft

We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long, it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

My life’s work has been to transform the conversation about abortion, so I am overcome with joy at the Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Abortion providers have been living under a very dark cloud since the 2010 elections, and this ruling represents a new day.

Abortion providers can finally begin to turn our attention from the idiocy and frustration of dealing with legislation whose only intention is to prevent all legal abortion. We can apply our energy and creativity fully to the work we love and the people we serve.

My work has been with independent providers who have always proudly delivered most of the abortion care in our country. It is thrilling that the Court recognized their unique contribution. In his opinion, after taking note of the $26 million facility that Planned Parenthood built in Houston, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote:

More fundamentally, in the face of no threat to women’s health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities. Patients seeking these services are less likely to get the kind of individualized attention, serious conversation, and emotional support that doctors at less taxed facilities may have offered.

This is a critical time to build on the burgeoning recognition that independent clinics are essential and, at their best, create a sanctuary for women. And it’s also a critical time for independent providers as a field to share, learn from, and adopt each other’s best practices while inventing bold new strategies to meet these new times. New generations expect and demand a more open and just society. Access to all kinds of health care for all people, including excellent, affordable, and state-of-the-art abortion care is an essential part of this.

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We’ve been under attack and hanging by a thread for so long—with our financial, emotional, and psychic energies drained by relentless, unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation—it’s been almost impossible to create and carry out our highest vision of abortion care.

Now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that abortion regulations must be supported by medical proof that they improve health, and that even with proof, the burdens can’t outweigh the benefits, it is time to say goodbye to the many politically motivated regulations that have been passed. These include waiting periods, medically inaccurate state-mandated counseling, bans on telemedicine, and mandated ultrasounds, along with the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements declared unconstitutional by the Court.

Clearly 20-week bans don’t pass the undue burden test, imposed by the Court under Planned Parenthood v. Casey, because they take place before viability and abortion at 20 weeks is safer than childbirth. The federal Hyde Amendment, a restriction on Medicaid coverage of abortion, obviously represents an undue burden because it places additional risk on poor women who can’t access care as early as women with resources. Whatever the benefit was to late Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) it can’t possibly outweigh that burden.

Some of these have already been rejected by the Court and, in Alabama’s case, an attorney general, in the wake of the Whole Woman’s Health ruling. Others will require the kind of bold action already planned by the Center for Reproductive Rights and other organizations. The Renaissance involves raising an even more powerful voice against these regulations, and being firm in our unwillingness to spend taxpayer dollars harming women.

I’d like to entertain the idea that we simply ignore regulations like these that impose burdens and do not improve health and safety. Of course I know that this wouldn’t be possible in many places because abortion providers don’t have much political leverage. This may just be the part of me that wants reproductive rights to warrant the many risks of civil disobedience. In my mind is the man who stood in front of moving tanks in Tiananmen Square. I am yearning for all the ways to stand in front of those tanks, both legal and extralegal.

Early abortion is a community public health service, and a Renaissance goal could be to have early abortion care accessible within one hour of every woman in the country. There are more than 3,000 fake clinics in this country, many of them supported by tax dollars. Surely we can find a way to make actual services as widely available to people who need them. Of course many areas couldn’t support a clinic, but we can find ways to create satellite or even mobile clinics using telemedicine to serve women in rural areas. We can use technology to check in with patients during medication abortions, and we can provide ways to simplify after-care and empower women to be partners with us in their care. Later abortion would be available in larger cities, just as more complex medical procedures are.

In this brave new world, we can invent new ways to involve the families and partners of our patients in abortion care when it is appropriate. This is likely to improve health outcomes and also general satisfaction. And it can increase the number of people who are grateful for and support independent abortion care providers and who are able to talk openly about abortion.

We can tailor our services to learn which women may benefit from additional time or counseling and give them what they need. And we can provide abortion services for women who own their choices. When a woman tells us that she doesn’t believe in abortion, or that it is “murder” but she has to have one, we can see that as a need for deeper counseling. If the conflict is not resolved, we may decide that it doesn’t benefit the patient, the clinic, or our society to perform an abortion on a woman who is asking the clinic to do something she doesn’t believe in.

I am aware that this last idea may be controversial. But I have spent 40 years counseling with representatives of the very small, but real, percentage of women who are in emotional turmoil after their abortions. My experience with these women and reading online “testimonies” from women who say they regret their abortions and see themselves as victimized, including the ones cited by Justice Kennedy in the Casey decision, have reinforced my belief that when a woman doesn’t own her abortion decision she will suffer and find someone to blame for it.

We can transform the conversation about abortion. As an abortion counselor I know that love is at the base of women’s choices—love for the children they already have; love for their partners; love for the potential child; and even sometimes love for themselves. It is this that the anti-abortion movement will never understand because they believe women are essentially irresponsible whores. These are the accusations protesters scream at women day after day outside abortion clinics.

Of course there are obstacles to our brave new world.

The most obvious obstacles are political. As long as more than 20 states are run by Republican supermajorities, legislatures will continue to find new ways to undermine access to abortion. The Republican Party has become an arm of the militant anti-choice movement. As with any fundamentalist sect, they constantly attack women’s rights and dignity starting with the most intimate aspects of their lives. A society’s view of abortion is closely linked to and mirrors its regard for women, so it is time to boldly assert the full humanity of women.

Anti-choice contends that there have been approximately 58,586,256 abortions in this country since 1973. That means that 58,586,256 men have been personally involved in abortion, and the friends and family members of at least 58,586,256 people having abortions have been too. So more than 180 million Americans have had a personal experience with abortion. There is no way a small cadre of bitter men with gory signs could stand up to all of them. So they have, very successfully so far, imposed and reinforced shame and stigma to keep many of that 180 million silent. Yet in the time leading up to the Whole Woman’s Health case we have seen a new opening of conversation—with thousands of women telling their personal stories—and the recognition that safe abortion is an essential and normal part of health care. If we can build on that and continue to talk openly and honestly about the most uncomfortable aspects of pregnancy and abortion, we can heal the shame and stigma that have been the most successful weapons of anti-abortion zealots.

A second obstacle is money. There are many extraordinary organizations dedicated to raising funds to assist poor women who have been betrayed by the Hyde Amendment. They can never raise enough to make up for the abandonment of the government, and that has to be fixed. However most people don’t realize that many clinics are themselves in financial distress. Most abortion providers have kept their fees ridiculously and perilously low in order to be within reach of their patients.

Consider this: In 1975 when I had my first job as an abortion counselor, an abortion within the first 12 weeks cost $150. Today an average price for the same abortion is around $550. That is an increase of less than $10 a year! Even in the 15 states that provide funding for abortion, the reimbursement to clinics is so low that providers could go out of business serving those in most need of care.

Over the years a higher percent of the women seeking abortion care are poor women, women of color, and immigrant and undocumented women largely due to the gap in sexual health education and resources. That means that a clinic can’t subsidize care through larger fees for those with more resources. While Hyde must be repealed, perhaps it is also time to invent some new approaches to funding abortion so that the fees can be sustainable.

Women are often very much on their own to find the funds needed for an abortion, and as the time goes by both the costs and the risk to them increases. Since patients bear 100 percent of the medical risk and physical experience of pregnancy, and the lioness’ share of the emotional experience, it makes sense to me that the partner involved be responsible for 100 percent of the cost of an abortion. And why not codify this into law, just as paternal responsibilities have been? Perhaps such laws, coupled with new technology to make DNA testing as quick and inexpensive as pregnancy testing, would shift the balance of responsibility so that men would be responsible for paying abortion fees, and exercise care as to when and where they release their sperm!

In spite of the millions of women who have chosen abortion through the ages, many women still feel alone. I wonder if it could make a difference if women having abortions, including those who received assistance from abortion funds, were asked to “pay it forward”—to give something in the future if they can, to help another woman? What if they also wrote a letter—not a bread-and-butter “thank you” note—but a letter of love and support to a woman connected to them by the web of this individual, intimate, yet universal experience? This certainly wouldn’t solve the economic crisis, but it could help transform some women’s experience of isolation and shame.

One in three women will have an abortion, yet many are still afraid to talk about it. Now that there is safe medication for abortion, more and more women will be accessing abortion through the internet in some DIY fashion. What if we could teach everyone how to be excellent abortion counselors—give them accurate information; teach them to listen with nonjudgmental compassion, and to help women look deeper into their own feelings and beliefs so that they can come to a sense of confidence and resolution about their decision before they have an abortion?

There are so many brilliant, caring, and amazing people who provide abortion care—and room for many more to establish new clinics where they are needed. When we turn our sights to what can be, there is no limit to what we can create.

Being frustrated and helpless is exhausting and can burn us out. So here’s a glass of champagne to being able to dream again, and to dreaming big. From my own past clinic work:

At this clinic we do sacred work
That honors women
And the circle of life and death.

News Human Rights

Criminal Charges in Flint Water Crisis ‘Only the Beginning’

Kanya D’Almeida

"These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference.

A Flint, Michigan, judge has approved criminal charges against three government employees involved in the city’s water crisis, marking the first time officials have been brought to book since Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in January launched an investigation into the public health calamity.

The investigative team is tasked with probing possible criminal liability in the Flint water emergency, which began in April 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River. That was followed by a spike in blood lead levels and other symptoms of lead poisoning in residents.

District Judge Tracy Collier-Nix on Wednesday approved felony and misdemeanor charges against two state regulators and one Flint employee, including charges of manipulating monitoring reports and the results of lead-in-water testing, and failing to require corrosion control treatment of Flint River water—a measure that scientists say would have prevented the water from eating away at lead pipes and fixtures in Flint’s aging plumbing system.

State and federal agencies have for months engaged in a protracted game of political ping-pong over who bears ultimate responsibility for allowing some 100,000 mostly low-income Black residents to consume, cook with, and bathe in lead-contaminated water, which causes, among other things, permanent neurological damage in young children.

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Michael Prysby, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) district engineer, faces six criminal counts, including misconduct in office, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, tampering with evidence, and violation of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act. Stephen Busch, a supervisor with the DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water, faces charges on five criminal counts related to the same violations.

Flint Utilities Administrator Michael Glasgow has been slapped with two counts: willful neglect of office and tampering with evidence.

Busch is on paid leave following suspension, and Prysby has taken another job with the state DEQ, the Associated Press reported.

A felony charge of misconduct in office carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, while conspiracy to tamper with evidence carries a maximum four-year prison term, according to a Detroit Free Press report.

“These charges are only the beginning and there will be more to come. That I can guarantee you,” Schuette said Wednesday at a press conference, the Detroit Free Press reported.

“So many things went so terribly wrong, and tragically wrong, in Flint,” he added, explaining that no one has been ruled out from investigation. “Everything’s on the table,” Schuette said.