The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity for households across the country, but undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families have faced unique challenges. That’s in part because they’ve been excluded from the momentary salve of government relief efforts, from stimulus checks to enhanced unemployment benefits. But it also stems from the Trump administration’s hostile immigration policies and rhetoric — and notably, the president’s changes to the “public charge” rule, which has led many to shy away even from benefits for which they are eligible.
The Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s changes to the “public charge” rule in January, which expanded the number of government benefits that undermine an immigrant’s application for residency or citizenship, including, notably, SNAP, or food stamps. The rule, which took effect nearly nationwide in late February, generated an immediate outcry from advocates, who denounced it as a “wealth test” for U.S. citizenship. Although the number of people actually affected by the policy is relatively small, it had a chilling effect, with many immigrants afraid that any participation in benefits programs could threaten their prospects of staying in the United States, or get undocumented relatives deported.
A federal judge blocked implementation of the rule in July, saying that it hindered efforts to contain the pandemic. But in late September, after subsequent court orders upended that ruling, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the rule would apply to all future and pending green card applications filed after Feb. 24, 2020.
These court maneuvers mostly went unnoticed by immigrant families, though, who have often relied on food banks and charities rather than federal assistance to put food on the table. Advocates and social workers have doubled down on efforts to clarify the details of the rule, but say that many of their clients opt out of benefits that are unaffected by public charge, such as WIC and Pandemic-EBT, out of concern for their safety.
Data released Tuesday from the Urban Institute illustrate the consequences of this chilling effect. The new report, which measures household hardship in September, found that adults living with at least one noncitizen family member were significantly more likely to be food insecure than those in households where all members are citizens. The food insecurity rate in the non-citizen households was 26.6 percent compared with 18.8 percent in the homes of citizens.
While hardship reported by other demographics has fluctuated throughout the pandemic, largely with the ebb and flow of government assistance, undocumented and mixed-status families have consistently reported high rates of food insecurity since March.
The data also indicate that more than 30 percent of Hispanic and Latino adults faced food insecurity in September, nearly double the rate of white adults who are neither Hispanic or Latino, a striking finding that advocates partly attribute to the impact of public charge, even among permanent residents.
“The chilling effect has led to a huge erosion of trust in government and benefits,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a co-author of the report. “This idea that pretty much most of the safety net would be off-limits sends a pretty stark message.”
Trump’s changes to the public charge rule made waves even before they took effect, and undermined enrollment well before the pandemic. In a national study by the Urban Institute, 11.4 percent of adults in immigrant families with children reported that they or a family member avoided a nutrition program in 2019, including SNAP, WIC, and free or reduced-price school lunch. Among low-income families, 17.1 percent avoided nutrition programs.
The pandemic has raised the stakes. Immigrant and undocumented families have borne the brunt of the current economic and public-health crises. They are overrepresented in “essential” work and industries roiled by the recession, from domestic care-taking to hospitality; many have avoided medical treatment due to immigration concerns or lack of insurance.
In a report the Urban Institute released in August, organizations reported that “almost everyone” or “many” immigrant families had avoided federal relief programs for which they were eligible out of fear it would undermine their chances of staying in the country or compromise a loved one.
According to Rebecca Gallagher, who directs youth and adolescent services for the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone, which oversees The Table, a food pantry in the low-income Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, the anxiety has been palpable. “There’s a tremendous amount of fear in applying for benefits, even among parents whose households would be eligible through their citizen children,” she said. Some of her clients, she said, have asked to disenroll from benefits.
For some families, pandemic-related hardship was so great that they went forward with applications for SNAP. “I know a lot of people are worried about using benefits now because of all of the news about the government wanting to find a reason to keep immigrants out,” one client at The Table, who preferred to remain anonymous, told FERN. “But I applied for SNAP for my children anyway because we just couldn’t buy enough food after my husband lost his job this past June.”
In neighborhoods like Sunset Park, a support ecosystem has emerged to try to fill the gaps; counselors and food providers have doubled down on outreach efforts to hedge against the chilling effect, while also providing food to families in need. But food banks and pantries have never been an adequate replacement for federal assistance, and the pandemic has further strained their operational capacity.
“Local organizations simply cannot organize the fallout,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research & Action Center, and have been forced to reckon not only with pandemic-related constraints but with the implications of Trump’s policies. “Emergency food providers are being asked to do so many other things, like make sure people have somewhere safe to live, or developing contingency plans with immigrant parents, in case of arrest or deportation.”
Rossmery Almonte, a SNAP benefits counselor at Public Health Solutions, which supports low-income New York City families, echoed that sentiment. “There’s a profound difference between being on SNAP or WIC, where you get money every month, that’s in your control, and having to rely on food pantries. That makes it a day-to-day struggle to figure out where and how you’ll pick up food, and if it works with your job, or childcare.”
Almonte said even her most disadvantaged clients have shied away from benefits. One, a 34-year-old mother whose husband died from Covid-19, has struggled to feed her three children but still doesn’t want to apply for SNAP — even though her children, as citizens, would be eligible. “I hear over and over, horrible fears of deportation, or people being separated from their children,” Almonte said. “They don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Although Democratic candidate Joe Biden has pledged to reverse Trump’s public charge rule, rebuilding trust might not only be a function of who’s in office. As another client at The Table said, “I feel like everyone is against immigrants now, and I don’t know if it will go back to how it was before, even if a new president comes in.”