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.
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. and Florida.