Antonio and his longtime girlfriend Gabriela (not their real names) moved to Flint, Michigan from Mexico 16 years ago. They're both undocumented immigrants. Deportation is a daily fear, but one they say is worth the risk to raise their four daughters in America. They earn below minimum wage, socialize mostly with other immigrants, and keep to the east side of the city, as precautions against getting deported.
Now they, along with the rest of Flint's undocumented immigrants, have another precaution to take—and this one could seriously affect their health. They have to figure out a way to access clean, lead-free drinking water while remaining anonymous.
The water crisis in Flint reached a fever pitch this month, when both Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and President Barack Obama finally declared a state of emergency in the city. Flint had sourced its water from Lake Huron for years, tired of being at the mercy of Detroit's water rates, city leaders decided in 2013 to build their own way of getting water, via the KWA pipeline. To save money while the pipeline was being built, the city started using water from the Flint River in April 2014.
The move was immediately met with resistance: People showed up to city council meetings holding bottles filled with yellow water, complaining that their hair was falling out, or that their dog had died, and demanding to know what was coming out of their tap.
It turned out to be lead, as university and hospital researchers exposed in September 2015. It would be months before the state government took action on the severity of the contamination.
The past few weeks have been chaotic as officials scramble to get water and filters to Flint's nearly 100,000 residents. Hundreds of people line up daily at the fire stations that have been converted into distribution centers, where residents can take home cases of fresh water to last through the day. But amid the frenzy, most of Flint's undocumented immigrants—there are at least 1,000, based on estimates from local advocates—have avoided the distribution centers altogether, where they fear they'll be outed as undocumented.
Antonio and Gabriela live just a couple blocks from the closest water distribution center, but they've stayed in their living room rather than collect clean water. They're scared of being asked for proof of legal residency, but they're also scared of what's happening to their family's health.
Gabriela's 11-month-old baby has a rash scaling her back. The skin looks normal, but it feels rough to the touch—the texture of eczema. Gabriela said the baby's been bathing in Flint water her entire life and has developed these skin rashes as a result.
About a year ago, the couple started suspecting the tap water was tainted, so when their daughter was born, they used bottled water to mix her formula. The rest of the family continued drinking Flint water until this past September when the lead contamination was confirmed. Now, Gabriela is worried about her baby daughter, because she drank Flint water during her entire pregnancy.
"I'm scared because we don't know if there's lead in her body, or in her brain, or if she'll get sick," she said.
Any level of lead exposure can be toxic, but the crisis in Flint is particularly dangerous for children. Babies who are exposed to lead in the womb are at a higher risk for learning disabilities and stunted growth; children may experience hearing loss, skin rashes, irritability, and developmental delays when they come in contact with any amount of lead.
Another undocumented immigrant, Lucia (also not her real name), remembers the day she turned on the faucet and the water came out yellow. Since then, she's been buying bottled water for herself and her son, but it's hard to do on her salary.
Lucia, a single mother, went to a distribution center earlier this month seeking clean water, but a volunteer asked to see a driver's license. In Michigan, individuals can't get a driver's license without proof of legal residence, so Lucia doesn't have one. As of January 22, the rules have changed and IDs aren't required to get water anymore, but Lucia is still too scared to go near the distribution centers.
"I'm not here legally, and I'm scared that they'll arrest me, and then deport me," she said.
A few good samaritans have come forward to help: Four months ago, Paul Donnelly, a deacon for the Roman Catholic Church, was sent to work at St. Mary's Church on Flint's east side, where most of the city's undocumented immigrants live. Donnelly, who is a young, Spanish-speaking American, has made it a priority to hand out water to the immigrant community over the past few weeks.
Besides the immigrants' fear, Donnelly says part of the problem is the language barrier: "They don't watch English language news at all," he told me. "Some of them [have only found out about the lead] in the last two weeks, one week, because they've heard about the lead from family members who live far away."
Officials at the city, county, state, and federal level are now overseeing operations to get clean water to residents; volunteers, nonprofits, and churches have also stepped in to help. Major corporations like Budweiser are donating tens of thousands of cases of water, and even local medical marijuana dispensaries are holding water drives.
Red Cross volunteers have also tried to deliver cases of water to residents on Flint's east side, where most of the undocumented immigrants live, but many of them refuse to answer the door. In the past two weeks, Antonio and Gabriela have heard rumors of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, and they're even more fearful of the risk of deportation than the toxins in the water.
"We don't know what types of illnesses come from lead," said Gabriela, "but the future scares and worries us."
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