When children are poisoned by lead paint, the state has systems in place to help. But those resources are often out of reach for children in families of undocumented immigrants.

The parents fear that allowing a lead inspector into their home could lead to deportation. Their landlords have little incentive to remove the hazard. And funding programs for lead paint removal require documentation that they don’t have.

“They don’t trust anything that has to do with officials,” said Helena DaSilva Hughes, director of New Bedford’s Immigrants Assistance Center. “They’re afraid that it’s going to expose their immigration status.”


Children in New Bedford test for elevated lead levels at three times the statewide rate, and the city has the highest lead poisoning risk in the state, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. A spokesperson for the department called lead poisoning a “critical health equity issue” because the data shows it disproportionately affects lower income communities and communities of color.

“Recent immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, and refugees without economic means tend to settle in the same low-income communities and therefore are more likely to be at risk of lead exposure,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

New Bedford is at the top of the department’s risk rankings in part because many families live on low income and the vast majority of the city’s housing was built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned nationwide. The city also has thousands of lead pipes still carrying drinking water to homes, The Light previously reported.

Dr. Amelia Monteiro, a pediatrician at the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, said she sees lead poisoning frequently among her patients, who are mostly immigrants.

“I think it’s a population that is generally more at risk based on the type of housing that they tend to end up living in,” she said. That housing is generally older and poorly maintained, which means it’s more likely to have chipping lead paint.

Lead poisoning can cause lasting brain damage. Even small amounts of lead exposure are linked to slower development and problems with behavior and learning. Young children can come into contact with lead by putting their hands or mouth on surfaces with lead paint chips or dust.

“It kills neurons, and they do not come back,” said Dr. John D. Leimert, a pediatrician at Southcoast Health. “Significant lead exposures can lead to developmental disability for a lifetime.”

But when the parents of Dr. Leimert’s patients found out that lead paint was poisoning their child, their landlords usually didn’t want to do anything about it — and undocumented families struggled the most, he said.

Dr. Monteiro said her patients’ families have gotten pushback from their landlords, too. They’ve said things like, “You’re lucky to have housing,” and even threatened to turn them in to ICE.

“I’ve heard it many times where they’ve just been told, like, ‘OK, then you should probably just move out. Why don’t you go and find a new a new apartment?’” she said. “Which is no easy feat for any family as in this day and age with the housing market being the way that it is, but it’s an additional challenge for our immigrant families.”

Those landlords are breaking the law. In Massachusetts, property owners are required to remove or cover lead paint in any home with a child under 6, and it’s illegal discrimination if they refuse to rent to families with children.

But enforcement of the state lead law is entirely complaint-driven, according to New Bedford Health Department officials. And undocumented immigrants are often afraid to complain.

“Having somebody coming into your home from an outside agency just in general can be unsettling — and with our families, knowing that a lot of them don’t have protected legal status, it makes it additionally stressful for them,” Dr. Monteiro said.

Those parents worry that a lead inspection could lead to legal repercussions, or even deportation. Dr. Monteiro said she tries her best to make it clear to parents that these types of inspections are in the best interest of the children, and they shouldn’t affect the family’s immigration status.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Health said its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program doesn’t ask families for their immigration status, and it provides case management regardless of immigration status.

The Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has the same advice for all families:

  • Have your doctor screen your child and have your home inspected for lead.
  • If your child is lead-poisoned, talk and work with the team assigned to help you. Your lead inspector and community health worker can give you advice that fits your family’s needs, identify exposure sources, and help bring your home into compliance.

More information about lead poisoning is available on the program’s website.

Without a willing landlord or help from officials, immigrants are left to deal with lead paint by themselves. Fully removing it is an intensive process that only some contractors are licensed to do.

“For anybody, that would be an extremely high expense,” Dr. Monteiro said. “Nevermind some of our families who really have significant financial hardships on a day-to-day basis just providing for their families and being able to pay for their housing.”

The city has grants and 0% interest loans available to help low-income families and their landlords remove lead paint. But even if a landlord is interested in applying, the applications ask tenants for specific identifying information and documents like tax returns and photo ID.

“That’s not gonna happen — that is creating barriers,” said DaSilva Hughes of the Immigrants Assistance Center. Immigrants without legal status often don’t have those documents.

Meanwhile, lead paint funding goes largely unused in New Bedford. In most years over the last decade, less than half of it was distributed, according to data from the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

The office said in a statement that the pandemic and increased construction costs have “added to the difficulty of enticing applicants to the program” in recent years, but there was a recent uptick in applications. The office did not explain why the funding had gone largely unused for years before the pandemic.

DaSilva Hughes said the immigrant community needs resources for lead paint that aren’t limited to English speakers with legal status.

“The best way to do this is not to ask all those questions — making it easy, making it informative, and making sure the person who’s delivering the message is someone who they trust.”

Email reporter Grace Ferguson at gferguson@newbedfordlight.org.

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