Politics & Government

State to Sedgwick County: Don’t ask nutrition program clients about citizenship

Sedgwick County Commission (2015)
Sedgwick County Commission (2015) File photo

The state has warned Sedgwick County not to ask participants in a federal nutrition program about their citizenship status.

A letter from the state health department said doing that before a change in the eligibility requirements would violate the county’s contract with the state to operate the Woman, Infants and Children nutritional program.

“If Sedgwick County proceeds with its plan to survey clients regarding their status as U.S. Citizens, understand that failure to maintain compliance with contract requirements may result in termination of the contract,” says a letter from the state’s associate chief counsel, Eugene Leuger, to county counselor Eric Yost.

“The current state and local operating procedures do not limit participation in the WIC program,” the letter said. “Before participation is limited, the KDHE must amend the procedures for participation and provide USDA with the amended procedures.”

The agency must notify the U.S. Department of Agriculture with procedures of how it would block illegal immigrants from the program, the letter said. It did not address whether the state would seek such a change in the program, which provides checks to low-income families for nutritional foods.

Commissioner Richard Ranzau said before and after he read the letter he was frustrated over the lack of a clear answer from the state.

“They’ve failed to answer any of our questions, basically,” Ranzau said. “Honestly, they didn’t even address whether or not they’re going to limit WIC participation.”

Asking about citizenship

Ranzau suggested last fall that the county health department begin using a questionnaire that would ask about the immigration status of all health department patients, including WIC recipients. Some commissioners said it would gather useful data and help the county understand who it serves.

E-mails obtained by The Eagle showed that USDA authorities told state officials that asking for WIC clients’ immigration status would be out of compliance and endanger federal grant dollars.

The county had been waiting on the state’s response.

Commission chairman Jim Howell and Commissioner Karl Peterjohn contended the state and federal responses are an overreaction to the county’s proposal.

“This is a very minor thing and it comes with consequences of threats of stripping funding,” Howell said. “I don’t understand how collecting data causes any issues of privacy or issues of anyone not receiving benefits.”

“We’re just trying to collect a little bit of data, and that seems to be a huge, huge problem and it shouldn’t be,” Peterjohn added.

Commissioners Dave Unruh and Tim Norton opposed the introduction of the form.

“I think this is just an exercise that we don’t need to be engaged in in asking people … whether or not they are documented,” Unruh said. “I don’t think that’s helpful to us in exercising our responsibility as the Sedgwick County Board of Health.”

Public health and immigrant advocacy groups have blasted the proposal, saying it would have a chilling effect on people seeking services and put community health at risk.

Restricting WIC

Ranzau also proposed last fall that the state redefine its eligibility requirements to block illegal immigrants from participating in WIC. The County Commission, when Ranzau was chairman last fall, formally asked the state to review those policies in an October letter.

That request became a key reason a group of residents in Ranzau’s district sought to recall him from office. An effort to petition for a recall has moved to the 18th District Court.

Peterjohn said during the meeting he wasn’t comfortable with “welfare … provided to folks who have broken our laws.”

“For a large part of the world, all they have to do is manage to get across the border and their standard of living goes up dramatically,” he added.

Unruh later called blocking people from WIC “not a good use of our time.”

“A child born here by our laws is an American citizen, and we wouldn’t want to exclude that child from receiving those benefits, whether their parent was legal or illegal,” he said. “We just need to provide these services as long as we have the resources to folks who need them.”

Months of waiting

The counselor’s office tried to get legal clarification from the state in December, February and March about the questionnaire and restricting WIC participation, to no avail, said assistant county counselor Justin Waggoner.

An update on the months-long limbo happened during the County Commission’s Wednesday morning meeting.

Yost said he received the letter from the KDHE by e-mail Tuesday night but wasn’t able to read it until after the county’s four-hour meeting had ended Wednesday afternoon. The letter from the agency was a response to a request Yost sent Feb. 19.

Commissioners, who also didn’t read the KDHE letter until after the county’s meeting, said it provided little clarification.

“It’s clear to me they’re trying to avoid answering any of our questions,” Ranzau said. “And that’s just not acceptable.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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