02/2012

No 'Papers,' No Running Water

José and Artemia

José and his family awoke one morning without running water. No water for cooking, cleaning, bathing or flushing the toilet. And no hope of getting it turned back on.

It wasn’t a matter of money. José, 43, could pay a water bill. But he’s an undocumented immigrant struggling to survive in Alabama, where HB 56 and an anti-immigrant atmosphere have turned lives upside down.

The problem began when José and his family moved into a rental home in a small town near Birmingham last June—the same month Gov. Robert Bentley signed HB 56. Jose had no problem getting the power bill put into his name. But when he presented a Mexican ID to the local water authority, he was told he would need an Alabama driver’s license. He didn’t have one.

For months, the water kept flowing anyway. But then, on Halloween, about a month after HB 56 took effect, the faucets ran dry.

There was no where to turn. But the family persevered.

Every morning, José would take two large jugs to his construction job. Sometimes, he would fill them at Walmart. Other times, homeowners in the neighborhoods where he remodeled homes would let him use an outdoor spigot.

“I would wait until he’d come home with the water from work to put it in the bath, heat it up to bathe our eldest son, which was the most important because he goes to school,” said Artemia, José’s wife. “The other two kids would bathe twice a week and for me, well I didn’t bathe much. Neither did my husband.”

They also used the water to flush the toilet. It wasn’t a perfect solution. The family could hardly bear the smell in the bathroom. Their daughter developed a urinary tract infection.

Cooking meals was a challenge. “I would make easy dinners, things that didn’t need much water, because we didn’t have enough,” Artemia said. “We tried to use disposable plates, because there wasn’t enough water to wash.”

The daily struggle wore her down.

“I was here, depressed, and my husband was working and there was a time when I was thinking of suicide,” she said. “But thanks to God, I thought of my kids and we made it through.”

José and Artemia contacted a local radio station for help and were eventually introduced to a local advocate who went to the utility with the couple. “She told them that there were children in this house and that they shouldn’t be suffering,” Artemia said.

The utility accepted Jose’s passport as identification and turned on the water—40 days after it was shut off.

As José reflected on the ordeal, he turned to his faith.

“We are all human beings, like it says in the Bible,” he said. “There is just one God and we are all under that one God equally. I don’t ever want this to happen to anyone.”

Photo by Sarah P. Reynolds