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The Refugees of Flint’s Water Crisis

While undocumented immigrants are often wary of interaction with authorities, a new wave of political terror is converging with public health catastrophe.

The Flint River in Flint, Michigan, on January 23, 2016. (Photo: Linda Parton /

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After being slowly poisoned by their government, the people of Flint, Michigan are finally getting some relief. But like the water itself, the crisis is spreading steadily and converging with an environmental crisis of global proportions.

Flint has been systematically immersed in toxins and disease in their tap water since the unelected government unilaterally switched the mostly black city to an unsafe water supply. Some communities face another layer of crisis as the toxic water table intersects with daunting barriers of culture, class, language, and legal status.

According to Remezcla and local news reports, “as many as 1,000 undocumented immigrants are afraid to head to water distribution centers because they don’t want to be deported.” While undocumented immigrants are often wary of interaction with authorities, a new wave of political terror is converging with public health catastrophe, with Obama’s latest deportation drive against Central American asylum seekers – including many women and children – whose pleas for relief have been rejected by the immigration authorities. For these households, the noxious, contaminated swill running from their taps is one of many hazards they contend with as they try to carve out a small sanctuary for themselves in a strange land. As relief starts to trickle into Flint, the authorities continue to put up barriers to aid – reflecting a familiar pattern of officials regarding the poor with mistrust even in times of crisis.

“I’m not here legally. And I’m always scared that they’ll arrest me, and then deport me,” said a women who was only identified as Lucia. And now that she knows what it takes to get water at a distribution center, she’s not likely to go back. “I got close to see what they were giving out, and it was water. And the first thing they asked me for was my license.”

Fusion reported that while the government has not instituted a formal policy requiring identification for water assistance, fear produces a social ripple effect.

“I went to ask for water from the fire station, and they asked for my social security number, so I left,” said Estella Arias, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. “I feel bad that I can’t get the help… I don’t want to expose my kids to lead.”

State officials say that as of Friday night, they are no longer turning anyone away for lack of identification, and were only asking in the first place in order to track where their resources are going.

But undocumented people here say that policy is not being implemented across the board. Officials at some fire stations simply hand anyone who walks in a case of water, while others demand identification.

“Once word of mouth ripples through the community that you have to have ID, it’s too late,” said Susan Reed, the managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Basic awareness is lacking among linguistically isolated Spanish-speaking households. An immigrant family might typically refuse to open the door to National Guard relief workers, Fusion reported, and “officers leave a flyer with information about how to get free water delivered – but it’s only in English. The directions for using some of the free water filters, and for when to replace them, are also only in English.” Meanwhile, many families shut themselves indoors to avoid unwanted encounters with authorities.

Maria, an undocumented immigrant whose body has erupted into a rash (likely water related, she says, but she has no health insurance so she may never get a diagnosis or treatment), remarked to Fusion, ‘”In Mexico we drink the water all the time and nothing happens. It’s crazy that this is happening in America.”

Other more established immigrants in the Flint area may still be endangered by social barriers. One community activist quoted in Arab American News said that members of the region’s large Arab immigrant community tend to rely on ethnic media and so have limited awareness of the water crisis. Moreover, ‘Some Arabs view the United States as a corruption-free country when compared wth the untrustworthy governments of their home countries” and so might “trust the government too much” when it gives false reassurances of water safety as Michigan officials did for months.

The US Human Rights Network cited Flint’s water crisis, and the subsequent political crisis since the official declaration of the State of Emergency by Michigan’s Governor, as a prime example of the kind of water apartheid that strafes many low-income, indigenous, and migrant communities across the country. Similar crises are afflicting many other regions, including mine waste ravaging the waterways of Navajo populations in New Mexico and mass water shut-offs on poor households in Baltimore, in a landscape of environmental racism where lead contamination is as epidemic as police violence.

The denial of water, too, is a form of violence – the act of slow social strangulation, particularly for those who come from elsewhere to resettle in promised land, only to find that a basic resource like water might actually poison them. Another paradox surrounding the disaster is that a key driver of global migration is water crisis linked to climate change. Iraqi refugees have been embroiled in the tumult of drought and water insecurity, while climate-driven pollution, agricultural devastation and health crises are rocking Latin America and displacing communities across the Global South. Flint is an eddy in a worldwide stormfront.

The story of Flint’s migrants embodies the cascade of tragedy they face after misplacing trust in their adopted country. For people facing deportation, deprivation, and now, contamination, the danger lurking in the water reveals a deep social undercurrent. In some ways, water is the element that embodies the possibility of life beyond borders, flowing free across divided landscapes. Social movements treat water as a symbol of solidarity and justice unbound. Yet water can also be opaque, frightfully scarce, and tainted; in Flint, it is a public trust betrayed.

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