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Fear prevents some undocumented immigrants from getting water in Flint

Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio

It seems unthinkable that some people in Flint might still be drinking water from the tap.  

But some undocumented immigrants in the city are just now finding out that lead contamination has made the water unsafe to drink.

That means some babies and toddlers may have been drinking poisoned water for weeks or perhaps months longer than others.

Jessica Olivares knows the new routine of daily life in Flint well by now - buying cases of bottled water at the grocery store, standing in line to get free water at the nearest fire station.

Olivares is in legal limbo; she's been waiting nearly two years for her U.S. residency application to be approved.

Her son is now almost two.  He was born a month before the city switched to using highly corrosive Flint river water instead of water from Detroit. He was formula-fed, sometimes using water from the tap.  

Olivares says first there was a boil water advisory due to e-coli.

Credit Genessee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative
Genessee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative
Undocumented immigrants sometimes live in conditions like this - because they can't complain to the authorities about unsafe housing. This photo is from The Genessee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative, which says: New request!! We are in need of faucets too! There are families who do not have a working faucet but can still use it for water. Please help! This family has a baby!!!!!!

Then, there was too much of a toxic chemical used to get rid of the e-coli.
"They were saying, 'Oh, it's okay to drink it, it's okay now.'  I would start using it again, and then after while, they were like, 'No.'"

The 'no,' was after state officials finally admitted there was enough lead leaching from the system's old pipes to poison children.  

Oliveras hasn't gotten her son tested yet.  

Recently, National Guard troops were called in to visit every home in the city, delivering free water filters and water.

But Olivares' sister, Juani Olivares, says there are roughly a thousand undocumented immigrants in Flint - and many have spent years hiding from authorities to avoid deportation.

"Water was being delivered," she says, "and they (immigrants) were not opening the door.  Because that is the one rule.  Do not open the door."

Let's face it, undocumented immigrants aren't paranoid: The government  really does want to get them.

Juani Oliveras works with the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative.  She says rumors are flying about sporadic raids at grocery stores.

"That's another reason why people are not getting the water," she says.

A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement says there's absolutely no truth to the rumors, and that ICE does not target people in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

But he didn't answer a follow-up question whether any undocumented person in Flint had been apprehended at a grocery store in recent weeks.

Credit Genessee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative
This sign tells people that boiling the tap water will not get rid of the lead

There's yet another problem keeping some people from getting help.  Paul Donnelly is a Deacon at St. Mary's in Flint.  

"I am bilingual," he says.  "And so I forget that some people are not bilingual.  Everyone seemed to know what was going on.  It didn't occur to me that some people, because they don't speak English, would not know that there's lead in the water and the water's dangerous."

Donnelly introduces me to one of these people.  Her name is Maria.  She's been an undocumented resident of Flint for nearly 24 years.  

She's cut off from the news. There is no Spanish language radio or TV station in the city.

Maria found out only five days ago about the water.

"Yeah, is crazy," Maria says. "We in Mexico drink the water and there's nothing happen, and I don't know what happen right here.  It's scary - more for the kids."

Genesee County's Health Department does provide "no questions-asked" blood testing, but you have to know to ask for it.

This week, there's another door-to-door campaign going on by local Spanish-speaking volunteers from groups like the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative.

They want to make sure every person in the city knows "el agua no potable" - the water's not safe to drink.  

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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