Wary immigrants in Georgia drop food stamps

Charmain Guerra-Phillip has heard the rumors in the immigrant community: These days, applying for food stamps can get you deported, people say. And even if you’re here legally, it can hurt your chances of obtaining citizenship.

But she has children to feed and her part-time job isn’t paying the bills. So there she was at the North Fulton Community Charities, putting on a brave face and reapplying.

“I’m not fearful at all,” said Guerra-Phillip, who has legal status and therefore is eligible to receive the government assistance. If worse comes to worst, she added, “God got me.”

Some immigrants who are here legally, however, say they have been spooked by a political climate they see as hostile, and they are thinking twice about applying for food stamps. Some are dropping the federally funded benefits by not reapplying for them, according to metro Atlanta service providers.

The immigrants’ concerns about deportation and citizenship appear to be unsubstantiated. And while charity agencies say they are still seeing numerous immigrants sign up for food stamps, the Trump administration’s stepped-up rhetoric and enforcement has sowed concern. So some are hunkering down, avoiding government aid.

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IN DEPTH: Amid Trump crackdown, anxiety grips immigrants in Georgia

“They’re all scared,” said Darlene Duke, executive director of the Sweetwater Mission in Austell. She has seen “significantly fewer” immigrants applying for food stamps. “They’re concerned about anything they do that can raise a red flag. They’re laying low.”

Controversy over food stamps

Food stamps often spark controversy, especially when it comes to who deserves them. Some people complain immigrants have easy access to such government benefits.

Unauthorized immigrants are not eligible for food stamps, but some critics say these immigrants receive the benefits through their citizen children. Such critics, in general, welcome a decrease in the number of immigrants receiving food stamps.

Nearly half of all immigrant-headed households with children — 45.3 percent — use a food assistance program, according to a recent analysis by the National Academies of Sciences.

“If some illegal aliens are ending their dependence on American welfare benefits because they are worried about enforcement, it underscores that President Trump is re-instituting a respect for the rule of law,” said Phil Kent, a member of the Georgia Immigration Enforcement Review Board. “Sounds like a win-win.”

He added, “The large majority of American taxpayers will not object to watching it decline.”

President Donald Trump's urgency to crack down on illegal immigration has frightened even immigrants who are here legally. In January, he signed a pair of executive orders that prioritize the deportation of more people, and that begin the process for building a new wall on the southwest border and hiring 10,000 more immigration enforcement officers. Another order, drafted but not signed, would limit food stamps to immigrants and make those who receive them subject to possible deportation.

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Legal immigrants say they worry that if they receive food stamps, the government will not view them as a productive person and reject their request for citizenship. Trump himself pointed to such thinking during an address to Congress, saying, “It’s a basic principal that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially. Yet, in America we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely on.”

Despite the escalating fears, the policy surrounding immigrants and food stamps has not changed. Food stamps are not used as a factor in deciding whether to grant green cards or citizenship. In addition, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials emphasize they do not carry out random raids. Further, in 2011, ICE adopted a “sensitive locations” policy — still in effect today — that discourages enforcement at churches and similar locations. During the Obama administration, that policy was interpreted to apply to places that distribute food aid, said John Sandweg, the agency’s former acting director.

Concern rising with the summer

Concern is rising with the coming of summer, when many immigrant children leave the schools where they receive free and reduced-price lunches. After that, the responsibility of feeding the child falls on the parents. If they forego food stamps, the children may suffer, said Sara Berney, executive director of Wholesome Wave Georgia, a nonprofit that signs up people for food stamps.

“In the summer there is a much greater possibility that children will be going without food during the day,” said Berney, whose group helps people obtain healthy food.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Households with unauthorized parents and citizen children are the most nervous and the quickest to say no to food stamps, said Ana Calderon, who helps immigrants obtain food stamps at the North Fulton charity office. Those who do fill out an application, often do so with trepidation.

“That someone will report you,” said an unauthorized Hispanic immigrant who stopped in to the North Fulton charity office to apply for food stamps and Medicaid for her two girls.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said she crossed the Mexican border some 18 years ago. Her two children are here legally. Sitting with her pink folder opened and all her personal information on the table, the woman, who is married, says she fears this could lead to her being deported. Worse would be leaving her two children behind.

But, she said, her family needs the help.

Since December, the North Fulton office has seen a decline in food stamp as well as Medicaid applications by Hispanics. Overall, the figure has dropped from an annual total of 113 applications this time last year to 96 currently, a 15 percent decrease. This month alone, applications have been down by half from a year ago.

Exactly how many immigrants are avoiding food stamps remains unknown. At least one charity, Hosea Helps in Atlanta, has seen its immigrant clientele all but disappear. Elisabeth Omilami, who runs the charity, said it took years for her group to build a relationship with the immigrant community. A year ago she was serving dozens of those families, helping them with food, clothing and access to food stamps.

“This year we’re not seeing any people,” she said. “They’re not coming to apply and renew (food stamps). They’re not coming out for the food jamborees.”

She’s convinced the need remains. So recently her group took a truckload of food, clothing and supplies out to Clarkston, a community with many immigrants. Some 200 families came out for the help, which included signing up numerous people for food stamps, she said.

Don’t feel they can trust government

Several other Atlanta area humanitarian groups reported similar experiences this year. For example, the adult caregivers for a pair of unaccompanied Central American children declined to register for food stamps this year, said Frances McBrayer, senior director of refugee resettlement services at Catholic Charities Atlanta. Both adults, she said, lack legal status.

Meanwhile, significantly fewer of the Latin American Association’s Mexican and Central American clients have been signing up for the benefits since January, including the parents of U.S. citizen children, said Cynthia Roman, managing director of family well-being for the association. Some have been asking whether their information will be shared with federal immigration officials.

“They don’t feel they can trust in the government. They are really scared to seek help,” Roman said. “They are really clear that this new administration is not welcome to immigrants.”

The Buckhead Christian Ministry — which feeds and clothes needy families — has seen substantially fewer Hispanic clients this year, said Donna Smythe, the organization’s interim president.

“We know it is not because they don’t need us,” she said. “The environment has suddenly become very fearsome — hostile. And they are deeply concerned.”

Food stamps

• About 1.8 million Georgians received SNAP benefits in federal fiscal year 2015.

• About 1.7 million were U.S. born-citizens, making up more than 95 percent of all SNAP recipients in the state.

• 1 percent were naturalized citizens, or about 17,000 people.

• About 2,000 were refugees, representing less than 1 percent of the SNAP users.

• About 1.5 percent — 22,000 people — were identified as “other noncitizens.”

• 2.5 percent, or 97,000, were citizen children living with noncitizens.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.