DETROIT—More than 60 children's rights, public health, and immigrant advocacy organizations today sent a joint letter urging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the federal Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to offer relief from deportation and to immediately and publicly suspend all immigration-enforcement activity to protect families exposed to lead poisoning as a result of the continuing water crisis in Flint, Mich.
"No parent should be forced to choose between risking deportation and restoring the health of their poisoned children. Given the permanent and severe consequences of lead poisoning, the federal government must act comprehensively to fully protect all victims of this tragedy," said Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. "The water problems in Flint were created by our government, therefore our government must put people first by guaranteeing that everyone exposed to this poisonous water gets the help they need irrespective of immigration status."
Specifically, the coalition urges the federal government to implement the following safeguards:
- Grant relief from deportation to immigrants whose families were poisoned during the water crisis;
- Provide assurance that any records related to the water crisis (such as public health records) will not be used for immigration enforcement purposes; and
- Immediately and publicly suspend all immigration enforcement activities in Flint until the public health crisis has been comprehensively addressed.
"Ensuring that all children in Flint have access to clean water and health services must be the priority of local, state, and federal governments," said Wendy Cervantes, Vice President of Immigration and Child Rights for First Focus, a bipartisan children's advocacy organization. "Children of immigrants represent a segment of the city's most vulnerable population, and as Americans, we must stand up for the rights and safety of children. While DHS has agreed to suspend enforcement around water distribution centers, more must be done to ensure that these children and their families are not afraid to access emergency and other health services now and in the future."
The coalition's letter hails a recent announcement by DHS that its agencies -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection -- will not conduct enforcement activity near water-distribution centers or pose as water-relief workers. However, the letter urges the agencies to address the crisis comprehensively and recognize the long-term commitment needed to mitigate the lifelong damage caused by lead poisoning.
"While we welcome DHS's recent announcement, we hope the agency will take the next necessary steps to fully ensure access to safe water and resources," said Susan Reed, supervising attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. "This situation requires our government not just to act in the immediate crisis, but also to develop a plan to protect public health and victims over the long term. The government should not deport children and families it has poisoned."
The letter comes on the heels of reports that many immigrants have been afraid to seek help in the water crisis for fear that they'd be deported and forced to leave behind their children—many of whom are American citizens.
The letter also follows assurances by the state that it would do more to raise awareness of the crisis in immigrant communities after state water distribution centers initially turned away individuals who lacked ID and after it was revealed that early public notices about the water catastrophe were printed only in English.
"The water problems in Flint were created by our government, therefore our government must put people first by guaranteeing that everyone exposed to this poisonous water gets the help they need irrespective of immigration status."