By Teresa Wiltz
WASHINGTON — It’s that time of the week — food pantry day — and before the doors even open at the Spanish Catholic Center, the patrons begin queueing up, lugging roller carts and empty grocery bags, the line stretching out onto the hot sidewalk. Immigrants all, they hail from the Congo and Costa Rica, from Nicaragua and El Salvador, from Togo and Vietnam. Most are seniors.
And all of them, they say, are afraid.
“I feel like a rabbit in a cage,” said Marta, 62, who moved to the United States from El Salvador 16 years ago, and didn’t want her surname used because she is living here illegally. Added Maria Monestel, an 81-year-old babysitter from Costa Rica, “Everyone is scared. They think they don’t have any rights.”
That keeps many from signing up for food stamps and other public assistance even when they’re eligible, said Monestel, who has lived here for decades as a legal permanent resident.
“They’re afraid if they do anything, they’ll be deported,” Monestel said.
As the Trump administration has stepped up deportations and workplace raids around the country, there’s been a drop at the Spanish Catholic Center in all immigrants applying for food stamps, said case manager Rodrigo Aguirre. Many fill in the gaps by picking up bags of donated groceries from the center’s food pantry.
Food stamp enrollment in the past quarter has fallen by about half from this time last year, Aguirre said, even with increased outreach and after the center streamlined its application process.
Such decreases may happen whenever the government cracks down on immigrants, a new study shows.
The National Bureau of Economic Research study found that in the decade before Donald Trump took office, there might have been a correlation between deportation fears and the drop-off in the number of Latino immigrants enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as food stamps, and the Affordable Care Act insurance program, also known as Obamacare.
Researchers looked at Latino enrollment in food stamps between 2006 and 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. They found that after the federal government began stepping up deportation efforts, Latino immigrant enrollment in SNAP and the ACA dropped. (The ACA wasn’t passed until 2010, and went into effect in 2014.)
In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security started a partnership, the Secure Communities program, that cross-checked the fingerprints of people arrested at the local level with the agency’s database of deportable individuals. The program ran until 2014, and was reinstated last year. It resulted in the deportation of more than 363,000 immigrants charged with crimes.
In cities that began cooperating with Secure Communities, food stamp enrollment among immigrants dropped by 19 percent within five years, the report found. But in “sanctuary cities” around the country, there was no drop-off in SNAP and ACA enrollment. (The study included data from the Pew Research Center, which, like Stateline, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.)
A spokesman with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, declined to comment.
Declines in SNAP and ACA enrollment were largest in “mixed status” households where some people are in the country legally and some are not, the study found. For example, one family member may be a citizen, another an asylee or a permanent resident, and still another undocumented.
“There’s a fear of exposing family members,” said Crystal Yang, assistant professor of law at Harvard Law School, one of the report’s authors.
That fear comes at a price, said co-author Marcella Alsan, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine. For immigrant families struggling to get by, the drop in food stamp use, she said, “could have a long-term effect on their health and their mobility out of poverty.”
But some researchers at California Food Policy Advocates, a nonprofit based in Oakland, caution against drawing a conclusion between the implementation of the Secure Communities program and the drop-off in food stamp enrollment.
Clients may drop out for a host of reasons, such as frustrations with submitting paperwork, said Jared Call, the group’s managing policy advocate. And as the economy improves, there’s a decline in food stamp enrollment as well.
“It’s hard to draw a direct cause and effect,” Call said. “They don’t ask you why you’re disenrolling.”
One thing is certain, he said: “SNAP is the nation’s first line of defense against hunger.”
According to Jessica Vaughan, director of policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that favors limited immigration, if the decline in SNAP enrollment is a result of the Secure Communities program, “that could be because of the overreaction among the groups that work with immigrants in the community.”
“Their protests and efforts to make this into a huge deal is as likely to contribute to fear in the immigrant community as anything else,” Vaughan said. Then, too, she said, the decline in food stamp enrollment could also be attributed to eligible family members leaving to be with loved ones who were deported.
“It might not be fear,” Vaughan said. “It might be fewer people.”
It’s up to advocates working with immigrant groups to do all they can to allay the fears of immigrants, Vaughan said, to let them know, no one will be deported for receiving food stamps.
“That’s not how immigration enforcement works,” she said.
Meanwhile, at the Spanish Catholic Center, which is run by Catholic Charities, Aguirre said, they’re “seeing kids go hungry.”
“The kids are born U.S. citizens,” he says. “They have a right to get food. We’re going to have a huge population that will struggle. We might not see it now, but we will in 20 years, when these kids come into the workforce.”
Climate of Fear
Without the stepped-up immigration enforcement of Secure Communities, Alsan and Yang estimate that ACA enrollment among Latino immigrants would be 22 percent higher.
Cities that didn’t cooperate with Secure Communities didn’t see the same declines.
That’s significant, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based out of Washington.
“Sanctuary policies make a difference,” he said. “They reduce the level of fear.”
Still, anxiety remains, even in sanctuary cities. Earlier this year, Reuters reported the Trump administration was considering making it harder for immigrants to get a green card if they or their U.S.-born children used public assistance programs such as food stamps. Advocates say that sent many immigrants into a panic.
Nhai Nguyen, 68, has been in the United States since 1991. She’s retired now, and her 74-year-old husband is blind. Food stamps only take them but so far, she said, so they come to the food pantry at the Spanish Catholic Center. She worries constantly, she said, even though she is a naturalized citizen.
“What if Trump cuts off Medicare? What if he cuts off food stamps?”
In Houston, at the Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services, a local nonprofit that works with the immigrant community, SNAP enrollment dropped by a third compared with this time last year. Meanwhile, participation in the food pantry program increased 266 percent, according to the center.
Rumors fuel the fear, said Maricela Delcid, a navigator at the nonprofit who helps eligible immigrants enroll in social services. Most of the immigrant parents she works with are undocumented, and therefore don’t qualify for benefits such as food stamps. But they don’t understand that they can apply on behalf of their U.S.-born children, Delcid said.
“It’s word of mouth, whatever their friends tell them, they take it as, ‘It’s going to happen to me,’” Delcid said. “And a lot of them are saying, ‘Don’t apply for benefits, you’ll get deported.’ We try to explain to them, ‘That’s not how it works.’ But they just don’t want to renew their benefits any more. They want them to expire.”
Portrait of a Population
Most immigrants do not use food stamps and other forms of public assistance. The vast majority of food stamp beneficiaries — 92 percent — are U.S.-born citizens. Four percent are naturalized citizens, 1 percent are refugees, and 3 percent are “other noncitizens,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average benefit for one person is $126.76 a month.
Immigrants must have lived legally in the United States for five years to be eligible to receive SNAP benefits. A few other immigrant groups — refugees, asylees and the elderly — also are eligible to receive food stamps. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible, although many of them work and pay taxes. Immigrants living in the United States are twice as likely as U.S. citizens to be poor, despite working at the same rate.
There’s a perception that “poor people want handouts, and immigrants are lumped into that category,” said Eric Rodriguez, vice president of research, advocacy and legislation for UnidosUS, formerly National Council on La Raza, an advocacy group based in Washington. He said that’s not the case.
At 74, Eduardo Lacayo is a retired construction worker from Nicaragua with a permanent green card and two bad knees. He relies on food stamps, but they don’t stretch very far, so he hits up the food pantry at the Spanish Catholic Center every week.
The U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently arrested a number of immigrants in the center’s neighborhood, and Lacayo worries about further actions. What if the United States revokes his residency?
Fear is a constant, he said, and these days many of his friends who don’t have papers stay close to home. So, he said, gesturing to an extra bag of groceries from today’s food pantry, he does what he can to help them out.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?” Lacayo said, before dashing off.