By Stacie Scherman
Among groups affected by the Flint water crisis, as some worried social service providers have pointed out, the undocumented immigrant community has been much challenged and under-represented.
San Juana “Juani” Olivares, president of the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative (GCHLC), is trying to do something about that.
She is working to make the so-called “U nonimmigrant visa” (U visa) available to undocumented people who have been harmed by contaminated Flint drinking water. Olivares recently met with Congressman Kildee in Washington, D.C. to discuss expanding access to the U visa to undocumented Flint residents.
According to Olivares, the U visa could help over 4,000 undocumented people living in Flint and Genesee County gain access to services like Medicaid. According to multiple reports, she states, there are about 1,000 undocumented people living in Flint alone.
Armando Hernandez, board chair of GCHLC, said expanding access to the U visa is especially important for undocumented children affected by contaminated water. He explained those children may not have the proper health services to treat long-term health issues caused by contaminated Flint drinking water if they are deported or remain undocumented. “We need to make sure that children affected by no fault of their own have access to health services. It is a human rights issue,” Hernandez said.
According to the website for the Department of Homeland Security, the U visa was designed to protect victims of specific crimes, including domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. In order to qualify for the visa, victims must have suffered mental or physical abuse, and help law enforcement with the investigation of the crime. Olivares said that she is working with Kildee to expand the eligibility to include victims of the Flint water crisis.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has already issued the maximum 10,000 U visas for fiscal year 2016. USCIS will begin granting the visas again in October, the start of the new fiscal year. Applications received before October will be considered for the new fiscal year. Olivares said she is hoping to have a group apply with the backing of Kildee.
“Congressman Kildee is very supportive,” Olivares said. “His other responsibilities will be to get other congressmen to support him and our community with this.” Olivares said that before their Washington D.C. meeting, she also had met with Kildee in his office in Lansing. At the time of publication, Kildee had not replied to a request for comment.
Olivares left her position as executive director of the Hispanic Technology & Community Center (HTCC) in January 2016 to join GCHLC. She began her current role as president of GCHLC in February.
Olivares said the move was motivated by the water crisis and her desire to work as an advocate in the community.
“I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted [at HTCC]. My role was just the services at the center, not advocating. At the collaborative [GCHLC], I work with families on a personal level, advocating for them,” Olivares said.
Hernandez said while GCHLC has existed in Flint as a small collaborative for a while, the organization incorporated as a nonprofit in November 2015 and received 501(c)3 status in February 2016.
The organization’s stated mission is to advocate for the Hispanic and Latino populations of Genesee County, provide education and social services, and promote cultural awareness. “We do what we can do to make the lives of the community better through providing food, advocacy, or just sharing the richness of our culture,” said Hernandez.
Since incorporating, GCHLC has formed partnerships with other organizations and has received grant funding, according to Olivares. Most recently, the organization received a grant from the Ford Foundation through the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC) which covers a six-month salary for Olivares and an assistant as well as office equipment. Woodside Church in Flint has also donated office space in its lower level until GCHLC finds a permanent location.
Other future projects include becoming a food pantry and hosting a health fair. Olivares said that she applied through the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to become a pantry, and that the United Way will pay for the service.
The health fair is planned for Sept. 17 from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. at Woodside Church, 1509 E. Court St.
Staff writer Stacie Scherman can be reached at email@example.com.