Having tried several times to cut the food stamp program, President Donald Trump has hit on a plan that could accomplish that while curtailing another object of his ire: immigration.
A new rule put into the Federal Register on Monday could limit the number of legal immigrants living in or entering the United States by penalizing those who depend on food stamps, among other public assistance. Low-income immigrants would be denied green cards (permanent legal status) if it’s determined they will be relying on the federal safety net.
In howls of protest more vitriolic than usual, advocates and experts across America and the region attacked the new rule as a sure way to increase the number of people suffering from hunger in the United States, many of them children who are already citizens.
“It is simply cruel to deny food and other lifesaving aid to immigrant children who are in the country legally,” said Joel Berg, CEO of the New York-based nonprofit Hunger Free America. “It is equally cruel to deny food to their parents, who are legally in America and often performing the nation’s hardest, lowest-paid work.
Kate Leone, chief government relations officer for Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, said the rule “will increase hunger in this country," and “create fear and confusion.”
And the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based antihunger lobby, called the rule “deeply flawed” and “mean-spirited.”
Defending the policy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting Director Ken Cuccinelli said it will promote “longstanding ideals,” such as accepting immigrants who exhibit “self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance.”
David Inserra, policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Daily Signal, a foundation news outlet, that the rule was long overdue. It will protect U.S. taxpayers, he said, “by ensuring that new immigrants to the U.S. will not add even more spending on top of welfare and entitlement programs that are already unsustainably driving American debt higher.”
Further, Inserra said, the rule also makes certain that those being granted permanent U.S. residency are self-sufficient.
On Tuesday, the City and County of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, Calif., filed what the federal government said is the first lawsuit challenging the new rule. The suit argues that the change will worsen the health and well-being of residents. It would also result in a “chilling effect,” causing immigrants to remove themselves from federal public assistance programs, potentially shifting costs to local government.
For more than a century, immigrants seeking to come to this country have had to prove they will not become a “public charge" — a poor person dependent on government help to survive.
But the Trump administration is dramatically expanding the conditions of the public charge test, and for the first time counting food stamps as a benefit program whose usage would be seen as a mark against immigrants. Those who use subsidized housing would also be included as public charges under the new rule.
Legal immigrants and their children have a right to apply for food stamps, now know as SNAP benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, experts say.
Having begun his administration with a proposed Muslim ban and continuing with separating children from families to dissuade foreigners from immigrating, Trump also has tried various times to curtail SNAP benefits.
Among other plans, he has proposed that people be sent food packages in lieu of the debit-like electronic cards they use to access SNAP benefits. Advocates have said the plan would cost more than SNAP and be impossible to carry out.
Trump has said the $68 billion SNAP program is too costly. Hunger fighters say it provides a minimal benefit while preventing starvation.
Reacting to the new public charge rule, Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance, the regional hunger-relief agency that’s part of Feeding America, said it’s part of the “despicable policies" being carried out by the administration.
“Food is a human right,” he said. “Philabundance sees any barriers to food access as an immoral act.”
The administration’s new rule is subject to a two-month comment period before it can be officially used in weighing an immigrant’s application to live in the U.S.
Advocates say that what is often misstated about immigrants is that they come to America precisely to latch onto government giveaways.
“Most people who come here want to work,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger and a SNAP expert. “And there already were very strict requirements for those who receive benefits.”
Even people with green cards cannot begin to receive SNAP benefits until they’ve been in the U.S. for five years, Fisher said. “The door to America is not wide open for people to grab benefits,” she added.
Experts have long said that immigrants fear dealing with the government enough to eschew SNAP benefits, even when they’re eligible. As a result, the number of legal immigrants who are eligible to receive SNAP benefits is larger than the number of those who actually receive benefits.
In fiscal year 2016, for example, 2.7 million people who were described by the federal government as “noncitizens” were eligible to receive SNAP benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP.
Of those, 1.7 million actually received benefits. The figures represent the latest available.
Low-income immigrant mothers are skipping the chance to get nutritious foods and help for their infants from the federal WIC program because they fear deportation or the loss of their children, according to the agencies that distribute those benefits. WIC refers to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
And immigrant families are even staying away from food pantries because they’re afraid they’ll be detained, said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, headquartered in Englewood.
“The level of fear has risen so dramatically. The chilling effect is, people just don’t feel safe enough to enter an emergency pantry,” she said.
It may not be a well-founded worry, because no one is officially keeping track of individuals in pantries, said Patrick Druhan, director of Montgomery Hunger Solutions for Share Food Network. Share provides food to pantries in the region.
But the new rule will only serve to keep more families from accessing food they need, LaTourette said.