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 baby sitter 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.
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 “could have a long-term effect on their health and their mobility out of poverty,” she said.
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.”