A Heartbreaking Choice for Moms: Food or a Family’s Future

Between 2012 and 2017, as part of a study of how low-income mothers feed their children, we talked with women who had moved from Mexico and Central America to the United States. They came here because they wanted to be able to offer their children more than they’d had growing up, including a full belly at the end of every day. Over the course of our research — amid increasing ICE raids, tightened work restrictions and growing anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by President Trump’s rhetoric — we found that many families became afraid to apply for food assistance programs. The Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule will intensify this kind of fear for immigrant families, including those who are in this country legally. One result will be more hungry families and children.

By allowing the government to deny permanent legal status (also known as green cards) to people who have received public benefits like housing assistance, SNAP or Medicaid, the new rule — which will go into effect Oct. 15 if it survives legal challenges, including suits by California, New York and Washington — will force families to choose between putting food on the table and the promise of future citizenship.

One of the most commonly used and vital public benefits is SNAP, also known as food stamps. With traditional “welfare” programs nearly decimated in many states, SNAP is one of the only resources that many people have to feed their families. Although SNAP benefits are not available to undocumented noncitizens, noncitizens in some categories are eligible for SNAP, and citizens — for example, American-born children in immigrant families — can receive SNAP even when other members of their family are undocumented.

But in a climate of heightened anti-immigrant sentiment, immigrant families have been increasingly opting out of SNAP, even before the new public-charge rule was announced. A recent study of almost 40,000 caregivers of young children found that SNAP participation decreased markedly among immigrant families in 2018, especially for families who had been in the United States for less than five years. And in our research with low-income Latina immigrant mothers and their families in North Carolina, we witnessed how their fears grew over time and prevented them from seeking the public supports to which they were entitled.

Take the case of Claudia, a woman who had immigrated from Mexico 14 years before we first interviewed her. During the time we knew her, Claudia had legal but temporary residency. Her five children, all born in the United States, were American citizens and eligible for SNAP, while Claudia’s partner, a day laborer, was undocumented.

During the winters, when Claudia’s partner couldn’t find enough work, her family frequently experienced food shortages. “There have been times when we were in bad shape and we’d run out of food,” Claudia recalled. “But what could I do? We didn’t have anything else.” Her problems were exacerbated by complications with their SNAP benefits, which she was nervous about renewing, because she was afraid to admit to “the government” that she needed help, worrying that doing so could somehow put her status at risk or lead to her partner’s deportation.

At the time of the study, the uncertainty and confusion Claudia and women like her experienced were understandable, especially given wide variation in eligibility for noncitizens across programs like Medicaid, SNAP and WIC. They worried that any misstep or misunderstanding could threaten their immigration status. Under the new rule, their worries will be based on something even more concrete. By refusing legal status to those who can’t afford food or health care and seek help, the rule will further drive immigrant families into the shadows, forcing them to sacrifice their health and security to maintain even a chance of receiving permanent legal status down the road.

And by discouraging immigrants, including those who are legally entitled to benefits, from seeking them, the harsher public-charge rule is at odds with a fundamental truth of the United States: that it is built on immigrant labor and would not exist were it not for the sacrifices and suffering of the people who have landed on its shores tired, poor and hungry.

Sarah Bowen is an associate professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. Sinikka Elliott is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. Annie Hardison-Moody is an assistant professor of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State.

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