Activists Sue LaGrange, Georgia, for Denying Water, Gas and Electricity to Undocumented Immigrants

Without a Social Security number and U.S.-issued photo ID, you can’t get basic utilities in cities across the South.

Allison Salerno March 28, 2019

Several southern cities deny utility services to residents without government-issued IDs or Social Security numbers. (Tetra Images / via Getty Images)

Emilio (not his real name), who is in his fifties, has lived in this for­mer tex­tile town for more than two decades, work­ing a vari­ety of jobs and rais­ing two children.

Denying services to residents who lack government-issued IDs is a common practice in small Southern cities.

When Emilio and his wife moved to a safer neigh­bor­hood in 2002, the city refused to let him open an account for basic util­i­ties — water, gas and elec­tric­i­ty — unless he pro­vid­ed a Social Secu­ri­ty num­ber and U.S.-issued pho­to ID. No papers? No service.

Emilio said city offi­cials seemed indif­fer­ent to his plight. It didn’t seem like they gave it too much atten­tion,” he said. I don’t know if [the lack of con­cern] is just with the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty or with the African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty too.”

Deny­ing ser­vices to res­i­dents who lack gov­ern­ment-issued IDs is a com­mon prac­tice in small South­ern cities. Because the water ser­vice is city-owned, res­i­dents have no place else to go.

In May 2017, a coali­tion of civ­il rights groups, includ­ing the Geor­gia State Con­fer­ence of the NAACP and Project South, and indi­vid­ual plain­tiffs (includ­ing Emilio) filed a law­suit against the city, argu­ing that LaGrange’s util­i­ty pol­i­cy vio­lates the 1968 Fed­er­al Fair Hous­ing Act, which pro­hibits dis­crim­i­na­tion against any per­son in the terms, con­di­tions or priv­i­leges of sale or rental of a dwelling, or in the pro­vi­sion of ser­vices or facil­i­ties in con­nec­tion there­with, because of race, col­or, reli­gion, sex, famil­ial sta­tus or nation­al origin.”

The plain­tiffs say LaGrange’s pol­i­cy dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hurts the grow­ing Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty — many of whom are immi­grants — and are also chal­leng­ing the city’s pol­i­cy that ser­vice may be denied to peo­ple who have unre­lat­ed out­stand­ing munic­i­pal court fines, which they argue has a severe and unjus­ti­fied dis­parate impact on African Americans.”

The pol­i­cy of requir­ing a Social Secu­ri­ty num­ber for new util­i­ty accounts has exist­ed for decades,” says Jeff Todd, LaGrange city attorney.

As to the pho­to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion require­ment, I know it has been in place at least a decade in response to the Fair and Accu­rate Cred­it Trans­ac­tions Act,” a law passed in 2003 to improve the accu­ra­cy of cred­it-relat­ed records. Immi­grant advo­cates say city offi­cials have used an array of rea­sons to jus­ti­fy their demands. Accord­ing to the law­suit, the city at first claimed the fed­er­al Patri­ot Act requires it to col­lect Social Secu­ri­ty num­bers, then that the Fair and Accu­rate Cred­it Trans­ac­tions Act requires it to pre­vent iden­ti­ty theft, and final­ly that the fed­er­al Pri­va­cy Act of 1974 requires it for util­i­ty ser­vices (in fact, the Pri­va­cy Act pro­hibits requir­ing peo­ple to dis­close their Social Secu­ri­ty num­bers in exchange for rights, ben­e­fits and privileges).

LaGrange levies no prop­er­ty tax­es and relies on util­i­ty charges and, to a much less­er extent, munic­i­pal fees and fines to meet its bud­get, accord­ing to the LaGrange Dai­ly News. Track­ing res­i­dents through Social Secu­ri­ty num­bers keeps tabs on mon­ey owed to the city, says local social work­er Anton Flo­res-Maisonet. It’s a way to track you to pro­tect their finan­cial inter­est … over basic human dignity.”

Todd says LaGrange City Coun­cil changed part of its util­i­ty pol­i­cy in July 2017 so that it no longer requires Social Secu­ri­ty numbers.

But the util­i­ty ser­vice forms, both paper and online, still ask for them. On Feb­ru­ary 13, when asked how to get water ser­vice with­out a Social Secu­ri­ty num­ber, one clerk told a vis­i­tor: You can’t.”

Flo­res-Maisonet calls the city’s pol­i­cy change a shell game” and adds that the city’s util­i­ty pol­i­cy still prohibit[s] any immi­grant who can­not pro­duce a U.S. form of [pho­to] iden­ti­fi­ca­tion” from obtain­ing service.

Azadeh Shahsha­hani, legal and advo­ca­cy direc­tor for Project South, once count­ed 19 oth­er South­ern cities that deny undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple access to util­i­ties to by requir­ing social secu­ri­ty num­bers and U.S.-issued IDs. So far, nine of them have changed or are in the process of chang­ing their policies.

Water is a human right,” she says. These poli­cies vio­late not only fed­er­al law but also inter­na­tion­al human rights laws.

In Emilio’s case, his land­lord agreed to keep his own name on the util­i­ties and show Emilio the month­ly bill before charg­ing his fam­i­ly. But that trust­ing rela­tion­ship with a land­lord can be rare, Flo­res-Maisonet says. For undoc­u­ment­ed LaGrange res­i­dents, Where you can live is lim­it­ed. And [depend­ing on] where you live, you [per­haps are at] a greater risk of being exploit­ed economically.”

The coalition’s case was thrown out when the judge ruled that the mat­ter did not fall under the Fair Hous­ing Act, but the law­suit is on appeal. My wife would always say that maybe we would nev­er see the fruit,” Emilio says. But maybe our chil­dren will.”

Alli­son Saler­no is an inde­pen­dent writer and audio pro­duc­er based in Athens, Ga.
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