The Forgotten Victims of the Flint Water Crisis

By Monica Mecias

“Flint Water is Safe to Drink”[1]

In June 2013, Flint’s state appointed emergency manager approved a plan to temporarily change the city’s water source to the Flint River form Lake Huron, largely an effort to save money for the city of Flint.[2] After switching to the river water, Flint officials did not add corrosion controls and the state, incorrectly advised them that federal guidelines did not immediately require them.[3] However, these controls would have helped prevent leaching from the city’s old lead pipes, giving rise to elevated levels in the water supply.

I Believe We Made a Mistake

On September 2, 2015, Marc Edwards, an expert on municipal water quality and professor at Virginia Tech, reported that corrosiveness of water was causing lead to leach into the supply.[4] Soon after, the Department of Environmental Quality disputed those conclusions. However, on October 1, 2015, Flint city officials urged residents to stop drinking water after government epidemiologists validated findings of high lead levels. Mr. Snyder ordered the distribution of filters, the testing of water in schools, and the expansion of water and blood testing.

On October 20, 2015, in an e-mail to Govern Rick Snyder, Dan Wyant of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted “I believe now we made a mistake.”[5]

On December 14, 2015, Flint declared an emergency.[6]

President Obama declared an emergency on January 16, 2016.[7]

What does International Law Say?

 “The fact that Flint residents have not had regular access to safe drinking water and sanitation since April 2014 is a potential violation of their human rights,” warned the UN Special Reporter on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, Leo Heller. Not only was this a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act which is a “federal law that protects public drinking water supplies throughout the nation” but it is a violation of human rights.[8]

Article 12 of the Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights states that “everyone has the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”[9] This includes the states responsibility to improve environmental and industrial hygiene, which includes Flint’s drinking water source. Article 11 also says that “states recognize the right of all people to an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families.” This generally would be understood as living wage, but it can be argued that it should include adequate food, WATER, clothing, and housing.

Further, On July 28, 2010, through Resolution 64/292, the UN General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. [10]

Immigrants in Flint

In the wake of this disaster, it is important that all Flint residents have access to clean water, lead testing, and health interventions. Unfortunately, immigrant children and their families are often the forgotten and voiceless victims of disasters. Many of these immigrant families and their children are not getting the help they need because they fear that if they access government services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) could deport their undocumented family members.[11]

Immigrant families in Flint were among those that were impacted in this disaster. Many immigrants and their families continued to drink, cook and bathe in the toxic water long after the state announced that the water was not safe to drink. The reason for this—public health information was not initially made available in languages other than English. This meant that families with very limited English proficiency did not find out about the contamination long after the news broke. Some family members did not even know of the contamination until their relatives in other states and countries called asking about what they had seen and heard on the news. To add to this disaster, state-run water distribution centers at first denied water to individuals who did not have identification documents. This is because Michigan does not give anyone who is not lawfully present Identification. This lack of identification left immigrants and families and children without clean water. Although it has been reported that this has since stopped, the damage was done.[12]

Michigan has started to respond to the crisis, but the problem still continues for immigrants. Michigan has chosen Medicaid to address the lasting health consequences of lead exposure, resulting in the exclusion of immigrants from the same health care as other victims.

There are many viewpoints playing out in the wake of the Flint disaster. This disaster should be a lesson that water is a vital human resource and Michigan cannot short change Flint’s water quality in favor of cost saving measures. But most importantly this should be a reminder that we cannot forget about the vulnerable immigrant families and their children, whose plight is compounded by fear that if they access any type of government services, they could be deported. Given the hostile political climate for immigrants and the reality of deportation, it is important that this community is provided with the resources necessary to ensure that they do not have to choose between getting help and family separation.

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[1] News release from Flint city government


[3] Id.


[5] News release from Flint city government


[7]; “White House Press Release: President Obama Signs Michigan Emergency Declaration”, available at

[8] (US Environmental Protection Agency,2016),




[12] See, e.g., Niraj Warikoo, “Flint immigrants struggle to get help, info on water,” Detroit Free Press (Feb. 4. 2016); “Flint Water Crisis: Undocumented Immigrants Scared To Get Water or Lead Testing in Wake of Deportation Raids,” Latin Post (Jan. 29, 2016).