Low-income immigrant mothers are skipping the chance to get nutritious foods and help for their infants from a federal program because they fear deportation, or the loss of their children, according to the agencies that distribute those benefits.
People are saying “they are scared to ask for WIC services,” said South Philadelphia community organizer Claudia Peregrina, referring to clients of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. “They believe their children will be taken.”
WIC enrollment nationwide has been declining since around 2011, federal figures show. While the decrease is partially attributed to overall lowered birthrates and a drop in poverty in some areas, administrators say they are witnessing an unprecedented number of people withdrawing from the WIC program since the Trump administration proposed changes in immigration rules last fall.
“Worries about immigration have been going on since the election,” said the Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, the nonprofit education arm and advocacy voice of WIC.
“It most particularly mushroomed after the president made it clear he was targeting immigrants, and now this rule change is creating all kinds of fear that immigrants are being targeted.”
Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC provides nutrition education, nutritious foods, breastfeeding support, and health-care referrals for low-income women who are pregnant, or postpartum, and low-income women with infants and children up to age 5.
Throughout the country, WIC enrollment dropped from more than 7.2 million people in fiscal year 2017 to 6.8 million in fiscal year 2018, federal figures show, a more than 5 percent drop.
In Philadelphia — where the poverty rate is not declining as it is in many other places — enrollment fell from around 52,000 to more than 50,000 in the same time period, state Department of Health figures show. Overall, Pennsylvania enrollment declined by around 3.5 percent between the fiscal years of 2017 and 2018; in New Jersey, the drop was 4.5 percent. While there are no numbers documenting the recent pullout from WIC, Greenaway and others describe advocates across the nation sounding the alarm that immigrants now believe that participating in WIC means a one-way ticket out of America.