Things are bad in Flint, Michigan…really bad. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s even worst for some.
See, in order to get clean, free, bottled water from distribution centers, you need identification. Undocumented immigrants don’t have that and are terrified of deportation if they show up at these centers.
Take Lucia. She’s been living in this country for 23 years and more than a decade just in Flint: “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 left because she was afraid of being arrested and deported. This is the case for all of the 1,000 undocumented immigrants living in Flint.
The contaminated water crisis began when the city of Flint switched their water source from Lake Huron to Flint River in order to save money. The residents were never warned about the existence of lead in the water leaching from pipes and contaminating drinking water. The contamination was so severe that Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in January.
Luckily for many undocumented immigrants, churches, like St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and their volunteers have been distributing clean water, no questions asked.
About 20 years ago, 5-year-old Elián Gonazalez arrived three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale from Cuba, on a makeshift raft, in search of his relatives in the states and a better life. Gonzalez’s survival through the arduous waters that would drown his mother and a dozen others along the way, might have been the media’s narrative in a different circumstance.
The 5-year-old would soon become embroiled in an international custody battle. Did Gonzalez belong back in Cuba with his father or in Miami’s Little Havana with his uncle which many believed was his mother’s dying wish?
Elián Gonzalez arrived in Florida in 1999 over Thanksgiving weekend.
Up until 2017, the United States had a “wet feet, dry feet,” policy with regards to Cuban migrants — all were welcome. The policy from 1966 allowed anyone who entered the United States territorial waters from Cuba, legally or illegally, to reside. It was revised in 1995 by the Clinton administration so that any Cubans retrieved in the territorial waters would be sent back, but if they made it onto dry land they would be allowed to stay.
Gonzalez was found by South Florida fisherman in 1999 over Thanksgiving weekend. The 5-year-old was welcomed by the anti-communist community of Cuban exiles. The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service placed Gonzalez with his paternal relatives who lived in Miami and wanted to raise him, however, his father in Cuba demanded his son be returned.
Under the “wet feet, dry feet” policy, Gonzalez would have to petition for asylum because he was discovered before touching dry land. This small detail would cause a six-month, international legal battle and shift the way many Florida Cubans perceive American politics.
Courts decide to send Gonzalez back to Cuba.
While Cuban demonstrators and empathetic Americans supported the stay of Gonzalez — the governmental powers that be were building a case that suggested otherwise. A Florida family court granted custody to Gonzalez’s great uncle in Miami. However, INS had the superior authority to decide that his real legal guardian was his father in Cuba. Had the boy’s mother survived, things might have turned out differently.
On March 21, District Court Judge Kevin Michael Moore of Southern Florida ruled that only a legal guardian can petition for asylum on behalf of a minor. But on April 19, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Gonzalez could stay until his family could file an appeal. When government negotiations failed with the family, more extreme measures were taken to retrieve the boy.
On April 22, 2000, on orders from Attorney General Janet Reno, armed government officials raided Gonzalez’s home with guns and tear gas. A photo showing a crying 5-year-old Gonzalez with a large gun pointed to his face would later win the Pulitzer Prize.
Gonzalez was safely repatriated back to Cuba.
The Gonzalez decision may have affected the outcome of the 2000 election.
Following the Clinton administration, the 2000 election was a turning point in American politics. Many Cubans felt alienated by the Gonzalez decision, and thus, walked away from the Democratic party altogether.
“It was humiliating to Cuban-Americans, and the 2000 election was payback,” Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen told the Atlantic in 20001.
Republican George W. Bush won by 537 votes during a messy (and possibly corrupt) recount of the 6 million votes cast in Florida, beating out Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Known as “el voto castigo,” Gore received only 20 percent of the Cuban vote in Florida, compared to Bill Clinton’s 35 percent in 1996. Thus, 80 percent of Cuban American voters chose Bush over Gore — which should be a lesson to both parties trying to build Latinx coalition.
Bush would go on to start the endless war in Iraq, utilize Islamophobic rhetoric in the wake of 9/11, trigger one of the worst recessions, and until recently, was considered the worst president in U.S. history. Gore would go on to warn us about climate change decades before the discourse entered the national conversation.
What has become of Elián Gonzalez today?
Gonzalez, in his 20s, is now a communist and staunch supporter of the Cuban Revolution. He was welcomed with a celebration upon his deportation. On his seventh birthday, Fidel Castro himself attended his birthday party.
Whether Gonzalez is on the right side of history is beside the point because the 5-year-old boy could not have become who he is today without instigation by the United States. Communist-sympathizer or not — he was correct about one thing:
“Just like her [his mother], many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it’s the US government’s fault,” Gonzalez told CNN in 2013. “Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba.”
A military veteran whose water filtration system provided thousands of gallons of free drinking water to Flint, Michigan residents had his machine sabotaged in August. The hooligans didn’t merely graffiti the massive “Big Green Machine” as it is nicknamed, they destroyed the battery and drained the fuel. Moses West and the Water Rescue Foundation had installed the machine less than a week before.
In 2014, Flint, Michigan changed their source of drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less expensive source of the Flint River. However, by 2015, after numerous reports of sick children and complaints from the public, a cascade of smoking guns exposed a scandal at play.
While the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality insisted the water was safe to drink, a Flint doctor discovered remarkably high blood lead levels in children. Meanwhile, an independent study by Virginia Tech researches discovered the Flint River was leaching lead from aging pipes. The lead blood levels in children were so high, a state of emergency was declared.
In the five years since the crisis unfolded, many Flint residents have been left without clean water.
The Big Green Machine is sabotaged by vandals.
“They drained fuel to add something to the coolant lines played with electronics,” West told WNEM. “That’s not typical vandal stuff.”
West believes there is a deeper agenda to the vandalism because the perpetrators had technical knowledge about how to prevent the machine from working.
“They broke into the machine and they destroyed the generator,” West said. “It’s very technical, I knew what they were doing. This wasn’t random vandalism, not at all. They destroyed the battery, put metal in the fuel system.”
West installed the green machine on Saginaw Street where it provided hundreds of people with clean, free water every day. The vandals caused additional waste with over 500 gallons of water having to be removed as a safety precaution.
“I’m making anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 gallons a water a day and giving it away for free,” He said. “That’s a lot of money out of somebody’s pocket someplace.”
The veteran plans to get the big green machine up and running with anti-vandalism features added.
“Nothing frustrates me. It’s only an opportunity to do better. No problems, only opportunities.” West told NBC25 News.
West brings water to Flint, Michigan in August.
West drove the machine to Flint this August only to have it sabotaged within a few days. The mechanism uses an advanced atmospheric water generation technology to produce water seemingly out of thin air.
“Here I am in Flint right now supplying an entire neighborhood with water,” West told WNEM. “Right now, the humidity is so high, the unit is producing so much water, even though we’re taking water out it’s still producing water; absolutely pure clean water.”
West founded Water Rescue Foundation, a nonprofit funded by donations. West hopes to get six machines in the area to provide free, accessible water to those most vulnerable.
“This machine is connected to the neighborhood,” he said. “They’re getting water right now. They come up, they get water. The veterans downtown started coming up and picking up water and delivering it to people who are elderly, who can’t get out, and right now you’re on a boil water notice here, and so everybody knows that so everybody comes up here and gets water.”
Five years later, the water crisis prevails in Flint, Michigan.
While Michigan officials claim 90 people were sickened and 12 died in the 18 months water was used from the Flint River, a PBS investigation found that 119 additional deaths may have been caused by the contaminated water.
Although authorities claim that the water now meets the same standards of other cities, with the Flint Mayor Dane Walling toasting and drinking a glass of water on television to prove it, many remain skeptical.
Members of the medical community like Mona Hanna-Attisha, founder and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, still advise Flint residents to drink bottled water or filtered tap. In the Washington Post, Hanna-Attisha wrote that until the lead pipes are entirely replaced, residents remain at risk.
However, she also notes that in the United States, poor regulations all over the country put everyone at risk.
“Across the United States, our regulations never intended for us to drink ‘lead-free’ water,” she wrote. “Instead, the standard sets a non-health-based action level of 15 parts per billion, which is hopelessly outdated and allows a water system to get a passing grade even when testing reveals dangerously high levels of lead in 10 percent of sampled homes. The regulatory framework is set up like Russian roulette, with the future of children at stake.”
While 15 city and state officials have been indicted, half have cut plea deals and none have gone to jail, according to NPR. Until there justice, it is up to individuals like Moses West to provide accessible water.
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