Imagine turning on the tap in the morning and seeing something that “looked like toilet water coming out of your faucet,” in the words of one Catholic leader. That’s been the reality facing thousands of residents of Flint, Mich., every day for more than a year. Now, imagine looking for safe, potable water and getting arrested for your trouble. That, too, is the reality—and the fear—for Flint’s undocumented migrant residents.
Deacon Omar Odette, pastoral administrator of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Flint, said he knows members of his parish who have been arrested for not having immigration documents.
Officials from the Department of Homeland Security have advised that “they will not put undercover people in the [water] distribution centers—but that’s only the distribution centers, not the rest of the city,” Odette said.
“They’re picked up, hauled away, given a court date,” he said. “The Border Patrol is only an hour and 10 minutes away from Flint” in Port Huron, which is separated from Canada by the St. Clair River, “and they come through quite a lot looking for people.”
Odette was part of a delegation from the P.I.C.O. Neighborhood Network and Michigan Faith in Action that flew from Flint to Washington to attend a House hearing on March 17 about the ongoing Flint water crisis with Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy.
In Washington, Odette and Faith in Action delegates updated representatives of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ domestic antipoverty arm, on the situation in Flint, “how distribution is going and what they need still,” Odette said. “Looking long-term down the road...it’s not going to be the rest of this year [to end the water crisis]; it’s going to be two, three years...adapting to whatever people need,” he explained.
Our Lady of Guadalupe became a water distribution center out of necessity. “They weren’t giving people water because they didn’t have driver’s licenses,” Odette said. “That’s how we got into distributing water—our people were getting denied. I don’t know how many Hispanic communities came by to give us water, but there were semi-loads.”
“We still distribute five days a week. We go from 9 to 6,” Odette said. “Every day we’re learning something new in how to do this. They didn’t teach this in the seminary.”
Two years ago, city managers decided to switch the city of Flint’s water source from Detroit’s supply to the Flint River. The city has been since reconnected to the Detroit water supply, but during the period when residents were dependent on the Flint River, the more corrosive river water ate away at old lead-lined service pipes that connect to residents’ homes.
When the crisis started making headlines, “people in Flint weren’t just going to lie down and be nonresponsive,” Odette said. “There really hasn’t been a good plan yet. They’ve started replacing some of the piping, but they do one a day. They call it ‘fast-laning,’ but when you have 30,000-some houses, it’s going to take a long while if you do it one a day.”
It may require replacing “things in the house that are bad” because of lead contamination, Odette said. One reason for the trip to Washington, he added, was to “let all facets of the government know that Flint’s going to need money—lots and lots of money—unless you want to keep on poisoning 100,000 people.”