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Illegal immigrants’ kids cut from food stamp rolls

  • Published Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, at 9:07 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, at 9:50 p.m.

Kansas welfare officials have eliminated or slashed food stamp benefits for hundreds of low-income, U.S.-born children whose parents are illegal immigrants.

The cuts are the result of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services changing the way it counts household income when determining who is eligible for the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

The Kansas City Star reported that families affected by the change are those that contain a mixture of legal citizens and illegal immigrants. While illegal immigrants are not eligible for the food assistance, U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants can be.

The issue is that the formula now includes the entire income of all members of a household, but calculates food stamp eligibility as if the citizen children are the only people in the household. Previously, SRS counted only a portion if one or more members did not provide proof of legal U.S. residency.

Since the change took effect Oct. 1, food pantries, churches and social service agencies have been inundated with questions and requests for food.

“We have families who really are desperate,” said Elena Morales of El Centro, an anti-poverty agency in Kansas City, Kan. “These food stamps were making a difference for families to be able to provide nutritional food for their children, or food at all. . This policy not only hurts these families, it hurts us, too, especially because we’re talking about U.S. citizen children.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Kansas is one of only four states opting to use this policy. The others are Arizona, Utah and Nebraska.

“This is not a time, with this economy, when we should be withdrawing help from struggling families with children,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. “We have a demonstrated problem of food insecurity in this country and, in Kansas, this policy takes you further away from being able to solve the problem. It exacerbates the problem.”

2,066 kids dropped

SRS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said the old formula gave households with illegal immigrants more benefits than some households with all U.S. citizens.

“Now, all households’ incomes are treated equally,” de Rocha said. “Prior to the policy change, U.S. citizens were being discriminated against.”

SRS data shows benefits were eliminated for 1,042 households from Oct. 1 to the end of 2011, once incomes were recalculated using the new policy. The agency doesn’t know how many U.S. citizen children living in those households no longer receive benefits.

However, an SRS report shows that in the first month, 2,066 children dropped from the food stamp rolls in Kansas.

Not all of those children lost benefits because of the policy change on how income is counted, de Rocha said.

“Some were, some weren’t,” she said. “… Families go on and off the program as their income changes.”

Melinda Lewis, a public-policy consultant for El Centro who has studied the issue, understands the need to be fair but doesn’t think the change is.

“We don’t want a policy that would put U.S. families at a disadvantage,” Lewis said. “So let’s find a solution. Put a cap on benefits so mixed-status families could never get more than a U.S. family.”

One family’s story

Carmen, a Johnson County woman, is living and working in the United States legally.

The mother of three – two of them U.S. citizens – came here illegally 11 years ago but now has protected status as a survivor of domestic violence and sexual assault.

She was getting roughly $290 in food stamps for her two U.S. children. In early November, when she was down to just beans, eggs and tortillas, she headed to the grocery store. At the last minute she checked her card to make sure the SNAP benefit was there. It wasn’t.

Carmen, who didn’t want her last name used to protect her family, went to the SRS office and said a worker told her, “Oh, yeah, we cut your benefits because you’re not a U.S. citizen.”

She explained her situation: that she and her oldest child live here legally under her protected status and that her two younger children are U.S. citizens. She showed them her Social Security card and papers detailing her protected status.

By the end of that meeting, she said, the worker told her they would get back to her in two weeks. It’s been two months, she said, and no word.

“There’s less food on the table,” said Carmen, who since the termination of her food stamps is working seven days a week, as many as 12 hours a day. “It frustrates me a lot. … Sometimes I just have to decide, what are the priorities? If I don’t pay the utility bill, it’s going to be shut off. If I don’t pay the rent, they’ll evict me.

“Whatever is left, I use for food. Sometimes it’s not a lot.”

Some days, Carmen says she has to hide food for later in the week. And when her children ask for seconds, she tells them no because “we have to save it for tomorrow.”

“I have lost hope,” she says. “But I am wishing for justice, not just for me but other people in this situation. I know if I continue to work hard like I am working, I can feed my family.

“But at what price?”

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