Fearing Deportation, Immigrants Abandon Nutrition Assistance Programs

The Trump administration is threatening to weigh use of government benefits – and even tax credits – against people in green card applications. And the result has been an exodus from services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, Children (WIC).

This policy shift could have major repercussions for immigrant communities, as well as public health — and ironically, it may actually force the government to incur even more expenses.

Rhetoric about immigrants using and abusing public benefits is a popular strategy for the Trump administration. According to claims made by conservatives, immigrants enter the United States without the ability to support themselves, and they expect the government to pick up the tab. This is known as “public charge,” and it’s actually already considered in the immigration process – not just by the U.S. but by other countries.

You can’t immigrate if the government thinks you’ll become dependent on benefits, but being an immigrant doesn’t mean that someone will automatically become dependent — or that they’re moving with the intention of relying on government supports. And, in fact, immigrants tend to bring a net movement of wealth into an economy — they actually have a slightly lower unemployment rate than people born in the United States. Most immigrants come to the U.S. to pursue opportunity, not scam the system.

As a general rule, since the mid-1990s, documented immigrants and refugees are eligible for benefits, but only after they’ve been in the United States for a minimum of five years, and they’re subject to the same means testing and requirements that citizens face. The numbers suggest that immigrants use such benefits at a lower rate than citizens do.

And, of course, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for such benefits, but they do pay into these programs via withholding from their paychecks. In 2013, the government itself found that undocumented immigrants contributed $13 billion into Social Security.

There are, of course, some exceptions with certain benefits programs. Individual states have latitude with certain forms of benefits and they’ve opted to allow undocumented immigrants to receive benefits like Medicaid — mostly because they ran a cost-benefit analysis and found that supporting these services resulted in lower expenses later on. California is one such example: Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, accepts undocumented enrollees.

With vague threats about tightening up scrutiny under public charge rules, immigrants are understandably worried. Does accepting WIC or taking a tax credit when you were legally allowed to do so compromise your chances of getting a green card or citizenship? Will the choices you made years ago scuttle your future?

As a result, some immigrants are proactively reaching out to terminate their enrollment in programs like SNAP and WIC. That’s not good news for their families, as nutrition assistance is a vital tool for healthy childhood development. Kids who aren’t eating can experience life-long complications, including intellectual and developmental delays caused by poor nutrition. Adults who don’t meet their nutritional needs can also struggle, especially if they work in demanding jobs.

And that in turn can cause spillover into the community. Malnutrition interferes with the ability to learn, but it can also contribute to behavioral problems and other issues in school. Kids who don’t get a chance to develop may be less likely to graduate high school, or less able to go to college — two things that can decrease their earnings capacity over time, ironically increasing their risk of relying on government benefits in the future.

Meanwhile, pregnant people who don’t get enough to eat, or can’t eat a balanced diet, are more at risk of having adverse pregnancy events. These could include congenital disabilities for the child, as well as premature birth, low birth weight and other issues, like gestational diabetes. The long-term public health effects of policies like these can be multigenerational.

In fact, many conservatives recognize this. WIC, in particular, tends to be a relatively uncontroversial program, because it’s focused on supporting healthy pregnancies and young children — a clear public health initiative that also speaks to stated values about helping children reach their full potential.

Republicans should take this opportunity to speak up: This proposed policy change is bad for children, bad for families and bad fiscal policy.

Photo Credit: cbcmemberphotos2477/Flickr


Chad Anderson
Chad Anderson4 months ago

Thank you.

Mary B
Mary B5 months ago

Good article and basically common sense. So why do most Americans still think that everybody else should somehow be able to materialize money into their hand, and call needing government assistance "scamming the system". The need for money never ends. You don't get it for a few months then stop needing it whether from a job, a trust fund or a good fairy. Money is a means of exchanging paper or electronic currency for real goods and services. As people get older their needs don't decrease so why do the SS checks fall so far behind the cost of real goods ?There is no excuse for this deliberate stupidity.

Camilla V
Camilla Vaga5 months ago


Teresa A
Teresa Antela5 months ago

Petition signed.

Julie W
Julie W5 months ago

The pro-Trumpers on this site are crowing that SNAP recipients are down, but don't say why. It's not because of less demand. Signed the petition.

Shirley S
Shirley S5 months ago

Petition signed

Sue H
Sue H5 months ago

Pure Evil. :(

Alea C
Alea C5 months ago

If republicans were worried about the cost of these programs, they'd be encouraging women to have abortions. Instead they want us to add more kids to an already overpopulated planet and then complain about the cost.

Carole R
Carole R5 months ago


Chrissie R
Chrissie R5 months ago

Thanks for posting.