Nonprofit Condemns Utility Policies That Hurt Immigrants

ATLANTA (CN) – After a nonprofit scolded 16 cities across the U.S. South about policies that make it difficult for immigrants to get public utilities, at least three have denied that they make service contingent on proof of ID.

Project South, founded in 1986 to help solve social, economic and political issues, brought the issue to a head on June 12 with a volley of letters that called on 16 city mayors to end their policies of requiring that customers show U.S.-issued photo ID and a Social Security number to obtain gas, water and electricity.

While Project South provided a copy of the letter that it sent to the mayor of Florence, Alabama, another four cities in Florida received letters, as did three cities in Georgia, three in South Carolina, two in Texas, two more in Alabama and one in Tennessee.

“These localities, by basically denying these people access to utilities if they don’t have a Social Security number, are engaging in illegal behavior under federal law and violating people’s core human rights,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director at Project South.

Project South warned that the denial of utility services to people who can’t provide a Social Security number and a U.S. photo ID “overwhelmingly impacts Latino immigrants,” and could amount to violations of the Privacy Act as well as the Federal Housing Act.

The letters spurred several denials this week.

“The city does not require an individual to provide a social security number as a condition of providing water and sewer service,” said Mary Gugliuzza, a spokeswoman for the water department in Fort Worth, Texas. “Unless there are any unresolved account issues, no photo identification is requested, and it is not a prerequisite for water and sewer service from the city. In fact, many of the city’s water and sewer accounts are opened by telephone without identification presented.”

Jim Beasley meanwhile said that Augusta, Georgia, has not used its ID policy for some time.

“The city of Augusta, Ga., stopped requiring a Social Security number to apply for utility service several years ago,” Beasley said in an email. “Our website was in error, and we have removed that information. Although Augusta requests Social Security numbers for some of its services, customers are not denied services based on their refusal to provide their Social Security number. To the extent that a customer believes that they were denied services because they did not provide a Social Security number, they are encouraged to speak with a supervisor within the utilities department and/or contact the city’s Law Department for further assistance.”

While a representative for Florence has not returned a request for comment, an official for the city of Auburn, four hours away, denied Project South’s allegation.

“We do not deny water service to individuals if they cannot provide a Social Security number or U.S.-issued ID,” Auburn’s public affairs director David Dorton said in an email. “We will provide water service while working with customers on any paperwork needed to set up a payment account, and will accept forms of identification beyond just U.S. issued IDs.”

Dorton denied that Auburn has received Project South’s letter, as did Samantha Senger, a spokeswoman for Cocoa, Florida.

“Nothing has come through to this point regarding our utility at which point we will provide comment if needed,” Senger said.

Senger did not otherwise comment on its policy.

Shahshahani said Project South received one response from a city so far.

“They said they’ll look into it and they’re taking the matter seriously. That was encouraging,” Shahshahani said. “We obviously hope they will change their policies and ensure they’re not violating people’s rights.”

In 2017, Project South and the NAACP filed suit over a similar policy in effect in LaGrange, Georgia.

Shahshahani said the 16 cities it reached out to by no means represent the whole. “We’re encouraging people to contact us if they happen to know of any of localities doing this,” she said.

Other cities that received letters are Phenix City, Alabama; Clermont, Florida; Green Cove Springs, Florida; Groveland, Florida; Augusta, Georgia;

Calhoun, Georgia; Loganville, Georgia; Anderson, South Carolina; Camden, South Carolina; Rock Hill, South Carolina; Dunlap, Tennessee; and Temple, Texas.

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