Politics & Government

Sedgwick County wants state to bar illegal immigrants from federal nutrition program

Sedgwick County commissioners are debating aspects of accepting a grant from the federal Women, Infants and Children program.
Sedgwick County commissioners are debating aspects of accepting a grant from the federal Women, Infants and Children program. File Photo

Editor’s note: The amount the WIC grant was reduced by Sedgwick County commissioners has been corrected.

A majority of county commissioners wants the state to keep illegal immigrants from receiving benefits through a federal nutrition program.

No state has such a restriction on the federal Women, Infants and Children program.

The majority of the Sedgwick County commissioners also wants to ask anyone seeking benefits or services from the county health department program his or her citizenship or immigration status.

Chairman Richard Ranzau proposed six changes to the Women, Infants and Children program, including a $357,781 reduction in the size of the program’s grant. Commissioners eventually voted 3-2 on Wednesday to cut the grant by $320,000 to $1.939 million for the next year. They’ll consider some of the proposals later.

Ranzau contended the program can be more efficient because it is serving fewer clients now than in years past.

The program will handle about 11,769 cases over the next 12 months, down from 13,059 the year before because of lower birth rates, according to county statistics. The county health department also used only $1.83 million of the $2.15 million it was awarded last year.

“If our assigned case load is down, then our overhead costs should go down as well,” Ranzau said. “And that’s something I want to point out. What we’re talking about today is the overhead costs to administer the program. This isn’t the money for benefits themselves.”

But Ranzau was critical of the scope and purpose of the program, which provides nutritional food and supplements, like milk and cheese, to low-income families.

“This is a welfare program under the guise of a public health program,” he said.

‘Provide for yourself’

Ranzau proposed that the county ask the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which funnels WIC money around the state, to restrict program participation to only citizens, U.S. nationals and legal immigrants. That would prohibit illegal immigrants from participating in the program.

Currently, U.S. citizenship is not a requirement to be eligible for WIC, state health department spokeswoman Sara Belfry said. Applicants must provide proof of income, residency and identity, both for the mother and child.

Ranzau said states can legally change their eligibility requirements. But county counselor Eric Yost said no state has restricted eligibility in this way, possibly because of federal penalties.

“There is probably a reason why no state has done that,” Yost said.

Changing eligibility requirements would need state and federal approval, Belfry said.

“If we would want to limit any eligibility, it would have to be the whole state … and we would have to get approval from the USDA to be able to do that,” said Belfry, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which WIC falls under.

But Ranzau said it’s unfair to taxpayers for illegal immigrants to receive WIC benefits.

“It’s essentially a government-run food bank where you get free food with vouchers,” Ranzau said. “The question is, should the hard-working citizens of this county, state and country be forced to subsidize illegal immigration? … I say no.

“If you’re going to come in here illegally, you need to be prepared to provide for yourself and your family.”

Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Jim Howell supported Ranzau’s suggestion. But commissioners Dave Unruh and Tim Norton opposed the idea.

“As human beings, in my mind, we have some obligation to be sure that we take care of the people in our community,” Norton said.

Ranzau also suggested county staff members develop a form asking about the citizenship status of people who receive health department services. He said it’s for data-collection purposes to determine how many services are going to illegal immigrants.

“We can tell people ‘yes, this is a problem’ or ‘no, it’s not a problem,’ ” Ranzau said.

Howell said neither proposal would immediately take away services.

“I don’t think this is about removing services from anyone,” Howell said. “This is something we’re just collecting data on. The health department does a lot of data collection anyway. It seems like a natural question to ask.”

But Unruh said the county is trying to dodge its responsibilities as a board of public health.

“Even though I can understand the political thought behind it, it leads to the question then, are we going to ask citizenship status when there’s an EMS call?” Unruh asked.

‘Breast-feeding business’

A majority of commissioners said they supported removing job positions tied to WIC that haven’t been filled and developing an efficiency study to eliminate a location for WIC services. They will decide those two proposals later.

Howell said the positions can be added again if program participation increases.

“If our caseloads or clients go up and we need to restore those at some point, we can certainly have that discussion down the road,” Howell said.

Ranzau also proposed eliminating three part-time breast-feeding peer counselors, who work with young mothers. That vote fell short 2-3, with Howell joining Unruh and Norton in opposition.

Norton said the county needs to keep services like that intact for the county’s low-income residents.

“As you treat the most vulnerable and underserved in your community is how you’re known as a civilization,” Norton said. “That’s who we’re dealing with: people who need some help understanding how to be parents and how to keep their kids healthy.”

But Ranzau said the breast-feeding counselors are not a core function of county government and should be left to the private sector.

“I’ll continue to advocate we should eliminate the breast-feeding counselors,” Ranzau said. “There are other alternatives out there.”

“I’m not sure we need to be in the breast-feeding business, so to speak.”

Reach Daniel Salazar at 316-269-6791 or dsalazar@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @imdanielsalazar.

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