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Flint's Undocumented Migrants Hesitate To Request Help During Water Crisis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's not proving easy to get clean water to people in Flint, Mich. Authorities promised to hand out filters and water bottles while they struggle to fix a water system contaminated with lead. They are going door-to-door, but not everybody is comfortable when police knock. Consider undocumented immigrants who try to live under the radar. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: This is part of daily life in Flint now and for the foreseeable future - buying water at the grocery store, standing in line to get free water at the nearest fire station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How much water, ma'am?

JESSICA OLIVARES: Three.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three? Got you.

SAMILTON: Jessica Olivares knows this routine well. She's waiting for her U.S. residency application to be approved. Her son, almost 2, 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. Then there was too much of a toxic chemical used to get rid of the E. coli.

JESSICA OLIVARES: They were saying oh, it's OK to drink it. It's OK to drink it. It's OK now. So I would start using it again, and after a while again, they were like no.

SAMILTON: The no was after state officials finally conceded there was enough lead leeching from the system's old pipes to poison children. Olivares 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 1,000 undocumented immigrants in Flint. Many have spent years hiding from authorities to avoid deportation.

JUANI OLIVARES: Water was being delivered, and they were not opening the doors because that is the one rule - do not open the door.

SAMILTON: Juani Olivares is with the Genesee County Hispanic/Latino Collaborative. She says rumors are flying about sporadic raids at grocery stores.

JUANI OLIVARES: 'Cause we've had raids here in the last three weeks. And they have actually picked up people from the grocery store. That's another reason why people are not getting the water because now they're afraid to go to the grocery store just to go get water.

SAMILTON: A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement say there's no truth to the rumors, and that ICE does not target people in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. But he didn't respond to a follow-up email asking if any undocumented person in Flint had been apprehended at a grocery store in recent weeks. There's yet another problem keeping some people from getting help - language barriers. Paul Donnelly is a deacon at St. Mary's in Flint. Many in his congregation are Latino.

PAUL DONNELLY: 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 the lead is in the water and that the water's dangerous until someone else brought it to my attention.

SAMILTON: Donnelly introduces me to one of his congregants, Maria. She's been living illegally in Flint for nearly 24 years and fears deportation. She doesn't watch English-language news, and there's no Spanish-language radio or TV station in the city. Maria says she found out about the toxic water only last week.

MARIA: Yeah, it's crazy, you know. When Mexico drink water and, you know, and there's nothing happen. And I don't know what happened right here. So it's scary, you know, more for the kids.

SAMILTON: This week, there's another door-to-door campaign going on, this one by local Spanish-speaking volunteers from groups like the Genesee Country Hispanic/Latino collaborative. They want to make sure every person in the city knows - el agua no es potable - the water's not safe to drink. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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