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A barrier to clean water in Flint, Michigan: a government-issued ID

The Flint water crisis is a nightmare for all residents. But it's worst for unauthorized immigrants.

Water, water everywhere ... but you might be asked for ID.
Water, water everywhere ... but you might be asked for ID.
Sarah Rice/Getty

The water in Flint, Michigan, isn't safe to drink, but most residents have alternatives. They can pick up bottled water at National Guard–operated distribution centers or, even better, obtain a filter that will remove the toxic amounts of lead from the city's public taps.

But for the city's 1,000 unauthorized immigrants, getting help isn't as easy as it sounds.

Most unauthorized immigrants don't have IDs (at least not IDs issued by American governments). And asking for ID, whether it's intended to limit aid to people who are here legally or simply to make sure no one person takes more than her fair share, has a serious chilling effect: Immigrants don't feel comfortable asking for water.

Here's what one of Flint's unauthorized immigrants told local news station ABC 12:

Lucia heard about lead in Flint's water four months ago from her son. Since then, she's been buying bottled water - and she won't get close to a distribution center after a recent experience.

"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," she said.

The same is true for filters. Immigration attorney Victoria Arteaga told WIVB, "I have been to an office where I’ve said I need water. They said, I need a state ID, a valid state ID, and proof that you are a resident of the city of Flint. Before I can give you a filter."

Why asking for ID can be an unintended obstacle

On January 23, as stories began to come out about immigrants being asked for ID, the state of Michigan put out a press release "clarifying" that people would be able to get water even if they couldn't produce an ID. A spokesperson for the Michigan State Police told Yahoo News that ID was "not required, just requested."

The reason that distribution centers are even asking for ID, state officials say, is (as paraphrased by Yahoo) "to track exactly where the water filters and other supplies are going."

That's an understandable thing to want to know. The problem is that in plenty of other cases, government officials ask for ID as a way of limiting aid or services to legal residents. So "Can I see your ID?" doesn't exactly sound like a request — it sounds like a way to screen out unauthorized immigrants or even arrest them for trying to get water they're not entitled to.

A few state governments (notably California) have gotten around this problem by allowing unauthorized immigrants to get driver's licenses. And even in states where unauthorized immigrants can't get licenses, many cities (including New York) have started offering "municipal IDs" that are available to anyone regardless of immigration status.

That takes care of the immediate obstacle to unauthorized immigrants getting emergency services. But the Flint water crisis is also showing the deeper ways in which unauthorized immigrants can be cut off from information and from government — even when government is trying to help.

Fear travels faster than facts

Clarifying the ID policy is the first step. But next, distribution centers will need to start complying with the clarified policy — as opposed to telling people like Arteaga that they "need" to see ID, or posting signs in the window saying "ID Required." Then they'll need to find a way to ask people for ID without even implying they need to show it.

But even then, it's likely that it'll take more than a press release to correct or update any misconceptions. After all, many of Flint's unauthorized residents didn't even find out about the lead contamination in the water until a few weeks ago.

In part, there's simply a language barrier. But the bigger obstacle is fear. When unauthorized immigrants associate government with immigration enforcement and deportation, they're extremely wary of contact with government. The distinction between local essential services and immigration enforcement doesn't seem immediately clear.

That's especially true when it's the police doing the outreach, as happened in one house in Flint while a volunteer was there, as Arteaga told WIVB:

"They knocked on the door and they said "Police, water!". Well they didn’t hear "water" all they heard was "police" and everyone went in the kitchen and everyone was arguing and not going to the door."

In that case, the volunteer was able to answer the door; she gave the police her name, and they gave her a filter. But if she hadn't been there, it's hard to imagine the house would have been able to get the lead out of its water.

This is a problem that police departments around the country have: Police need to be able to talk to community residents to promote public safety — and even to solve crimes — but unauthorized immigrants associate police with deportation. It's one big reason there's tension between local and federal governments about when local police should turn over unauthorized immigrants in local jails.

Local police have some control over how they're perceived by immigrants, but even the nicest local police department in the planet can't totally disassociate itself from federal immigration agents. Immigration agents in Michigan can be aggressive: Five years ago, they surrounded a Detroit-area elementary school to catch an immigrant who was dropping off children.

It's not surprising that Flint's immigrants don't hear the word "water" when they are terrified by the word "police." And that might not be within the state of Michigan's power to fix.