JURIST Guest Columnist Azadeh Shahshahani of Project South discusses a case of discrimination in access to public utilities …
It’s hard to believe that in the twenty-first century there are still households that face the risk of going without electricity or running water because of who they are and where they come from. But in Georgia, that’s still the case. In LaGrange, a town about an hour southwest of Atlanta, the City is the sole utility service provider and will not provide these basic services to any applicant who cannot provide specific identity documents that are unavailable to many immigrants, including those who are undocumented – and many who are lawfully present.
While the City’s identity document requirements disproportionately hurt Latinos, the City also limits and denies basic utility services to people with unrelated court debt owed to the City, a policy that predominantly harms African-Americans. To deny utility services to people because they cannot provide certain identity documents, or owe the City debt, is both inhumane and in violation of federal law—which is why we went to court.
In May, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and the law firm of Relman, Dane and Colfax PLLC filed a lawsuit [complaint, PDF] on behalf of the Georgia NAACP, the Troup County Branch of the NAACP, Project South, and several impacted individuals, challenging two local policies [PDF] that make it incredibly hard, and even impossible, for many residents to keep the lights on and maintain running water in their homes. We are asking the court to permanently block these discriminatory policies.
Both local policies unlawfully restrict access to utility services that are vital to people’s ability to live in LaGrange—including gas, water and electricity—and the overwhelming majority of residents impacted are Black and Latino. Both of these policies put low-income residents of color in an impossible situation—either leave their homes and families in LaGrange or live without basic utilities.
Many of the individuals affected by this first policy are undocumented Latino immigrants who, in order to get water or electricity, must either rent from a landlord who provides the utilities, which seriously limits available housing options, or find a third party willing to open an account for them. The latter practice is criminalized under a current municipal ordinance and could subject the utility user (and the third party) to jail time and fines. Both options make families vulnerable to exploitation.
The policy applies to renters and homeowners alike. But for the kindness of a friend willing to risk prosecution, for example, a Project South member and his wife, and their two young children, would be unable to obtain water or electricity in their home in LaGrange, which they own.
Another resident impacted by this policy is an undocumented man who has lived in LaGrange for more than fifteen years. He lives with his four children in a home that he rents. He can’t obtain utilities from LaGrange in his own name because he does not have a social security number and separate U.S. or state-government-issued photo ID.
Another man lives in LaGrange with his wife and their two young children in a home that they own. He, too, is unable to obtain utilities from the City of LaGrange in his own name because he lacks a social security number and other U.S.- or state government-issued photo ID. His wife is similarly unable to meet the requirements of the discriminatory LaGrange policy.
The second policy we’re challenging adds individuals’ unpaid fines and fees from the LaGrange Municipal Court to their utility bills, and then threatens utility service disconnections if the court debt is not paid. LaGrange residents are often threatened with utility disconnection because of unpaid fines for things like traffic offenses, loitering and petty theft. Some of those convictions are more than ten years old. Most of the individuals affected by this policy are African-American – even though only half of the town’s residents are African-American, more than 90 percent threatened with utility disconnection because of court debt in recent years are African-American.
Many of the individuals affected by these discriminatory policies are on a fixed income, and some rely on electricity for medical treatment. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, for example, is an African-American man with disabilities who relies on an oxygen machine to breathe. Yet the City of LaGrange has continually threatened to disconnect his electricity and other utilities, in part, because of court fines stemming from a traffic ticket.
These policies prey upon LaGrange’s most vulnerable residents. They are not only inhumane – they are illegal, too. We are confident the courts will agree.
Azadeh Shahshahani is Legal and Advocacy Director at Project South and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. Azadeh has worked for a number of years in the Southeast to protect the human rights of immigrants and Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities. She previously served as National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project Director with the ACLU of Georgia. Her work has also appeared in the Guardian, the Nation, MSNBC, Aljazeera, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and the Huffington Post, among others.
Suggested citation: Azadeh Shahshahani, Discrimination Via Public Utility Monopoly in LaGrange, JURIST – Professional Commentary, Oct. 25, 2017, http://jurist.org/professional/2017/10/azadeh-shahshahani-utility-discrimination.php.
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