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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Paul Donnelly

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

By Gordon Nary

Gordon: The challenges and daily stresses facing undocumented immigrants especially in this current political season often makes then difficult to contact and to trust many people outside of this community, Please explain to our readers how these challenges may have made many of the local undocumented immigrants unaware of the lead poisoning crisis in Flint and the possible harm that resulted.

Father Paul : There are several reasons that some undocumented immigrants in Flint were unaware that the tap water in Flint contains lead. Some of these immigrants work thirteen days out of fourteen in restaurant kitchens, meaning that even door-to-door outreach does not reach them. Some of them are not members of any parish because they work on Sundays. Most of them do not speak English, and all of the science that has been publicized about the leaded water has been in English. We in church ministry and our friends in social services have translated all that we know about the lead, but we didn’t do that soon enough. Some of the folks do not read, meaning only radio announcements or conversations in Spanish will be effective for them.  

There are other reasons that some immigrants, even after they knew about the water, did not come forward to claim water or filters. Since those items were being distributed by fire departments and the National Guard, the immigrants feared that their identities would be captured and communicated to law enforcement, resulting in deportation by ICE. While there has been no evidence that law enforcement was informed of people’s identities, false rumors can be just as destructive as if they were true. What is true is that some water distribution sites required identification in order to prove residency in the city of Flint. Undocumented immigrants do not have such identification, and neither do some American citizens.

Gordon:  Is there an estimate of how many undocumented immigrants may affected by the lead poisoning crisis in Flint?.

Father Paul: There are a number of estimates. Some estimates are completely untenable according to the best evidence we have. The number of undocumented immigrants whose domestic water is from the city of Flint is between 100 and 300.

Gordon: Are there any programs currently designed to help them address this crisis?

Father Paul: The efforts that currently target them include door-to-door canvassing on Saturdays and Sundays by a consortium of church members and other friends of good will, and distribution of water, filters, liquid infant formula and baby wipes without requiring any identification or proof of address by St. Mary's Church. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church  and other churches.

Gordon: As Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and her colleagues reported, there are significant long-term effects of lead poisoning especially among children. What in your opinion can be dome for those undocumented immigrants and their children  who have been poisoned or who may still be at risk of being poisoned?

Father Paul: If there are children of undocumented immigrants who have suffered lead poisoning, they may consequently qualify as plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that would result in their naturalization, according to immigrant attorney Veronica Cortez of Chicago. Aside from the question of legal status, they will qualify for all the help that is available to children of American citizens. An obstacle they may face is, as we have seen, their fear that obtaining any services that are not anonymous will result in their deportation.

Gordon: Do you have any suggestions what all Catholic parishes and other organizations can do to help resolves the extraordinary challenges affecting the daily  lives of all undocumented immigrants in the United States?

Father Paul: Undocumented immigrants in the United States come from dozens of countries. My personal knowledge is strongest regarding undocumented folks from Central America and the Caribbean. We need to advocate, both with our legislators and with our friends, for the expansion of immigration through legal means. The problems we have seen in Flint, affecting just a few hundred people in this case, are inevitable when people are residing in a place where they are completely unknown to the government. The same people could be here, working in better conditions and without the dangers that ensue from anonymity and invisibility, if there were avenues for them to come and work and live legally. They are classically American in the sense that they value faith, family, work, self-determination and equality. I have never met one who didn’t want to work, or who wanted to claim more than he had earned.  

The resentment that some Americans feel toward undocumented immigrants is due in part to the substandard wages they accept. Construction workers, for instance, who do not have work visas, work for far less than a living wage. If the same workers were here legally, competition would be fair among various crews for work, since they would all be entitled to the same wages. No firm could vastly undercut another in its bids.  

We see numerous ways in which immigrants are subjected to danger by the circumstances of illegal immigration. Legal immigration is safer for them and fortuitous for citizens. We need to expand the numbers of those who are welcomed. Those who need to, can learn to read. Those who read can learn English. The faith of Central American and Caribbean people in Jesus Christ, if they bring it to our land, will be a gift to us all.  

Gordon: Thank you for your insights into these challenges, what we need to do to address the immediate health and other challenges to the immigrants in Flint,. and what need to do to help all those immigrants who may need our help, support, and prayers everywhere our country.


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