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Why Immigrant Families Aren’t Enrolling In Food Stamp Programs

Immigration/ Green Card Standards as the main reason- The Urban Institute research

It has been observed in a report released by the Urban Institute in May 2019 that migrant families, including U.S. citizens, are circumventing safety net programs because of the negative repercussion associated with them.  It can be connected to a notorious policy proposal to harden the country’s standards for granting green cards and temporary visas.

The researchers in this Washington D.C. based think tank conducted interviews of adult immigrants in late 2018 asking about current American administration’s efforts to expand non-cash public benefits in health, housing, and Food Stamps.  The research revealed that around 13.7 percent family members never participated or even applied in one of these federal assistance programs for the fear that the immigration authorities might consider it as a negative point during their application review. Same is the reason for even a higher number (21%) of low-income families’ not applying for these safety net programs.

The worrying aspect of it is that these aspirations are discouraging people from applying for the assistance they are eligible for, due to the fact that think it might impact their immigration issues in coming time.

Hamutal Bernstein, a senior researcher said that nearly half of those surveyed reported that one of their family members either dropped or did not apply at all for benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as food stamps.


This survey reflects the general fear or ongoing chilling effect among immigrant communities that resulted in lower numbers of these vulnerable folks in food stamps. It has multiple factors in it for example immigrants also have developed a general about avoiding contact with government agencies.

Trend during 2007-2017

  • In separate research presented at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) 2018 annual meeting shows that the requirements for the eligibility of SNAP commonly known as food stamps haven’t changed. It is observed that for the first time in a decade’s time, fewer of those eligible for the program, especially recent immigrants, are enrolling.
  • Between 2007 and 2017, according to APHA’s study, enrollment among the eligible immigrant families steadily raised. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has federal rules with some variations state by state. Generally, individuals and families qualify if their income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty line; there is a variety of other factors and that also varies by location and related to the resources owned by the applicants.
  • It is a rare chance that non-citizen individuals or household is eligible for SNAP program (and undocumented immigrants are not eligible in any case), but immigrants living in the country for more than five years are eligible, on condition that they fulfill the requirements. Families with children under 18 years of age are exempted of that five-year rule for their eligibility.
  • After surveying around 35,000 mothers of young children in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Little Rock, the APHA established that during the decade ending in 2017, enrollment for eligible families was steadily on the rise. It was 43 percent among the immigrant household with mothers having young children even if living for less than 5 years in the country.
  • It is an important fact to note that even at its peak, less than half of the country’s neediest eligible immigrant families were availing benefits they were entitled to. These households, in general, are more likely to use SNAP at much lower rates as compared to American-born eligible families.

Post-2018 Scenario

  • In 2018, without any change in the eligibility criteria, the numbers of families who applied for the program dropped significantly. Families with a mother living in the US for less than five years went from 43 percent to 34.8 percent. Households a mother, who came to the US than five years ago, plunged from 44.7 to 42.7 percent.
  • With no apparent reason or legal implication for these families not to continue enrolling in the program, there was a big shift between 2017 and 2018. The fact remained that the food insecurity hasn’t dropped among these families; rather, it’s risen.
  • The American Public Health Association study’s lead researcher expressed in their press release that the drop in participation may be related to more complex changes in national immigration rhetoric and increased federal action to deport and detain immigrants. The trend mirrors that expression and the threat of policy changes are responsible for families to give up nutrition assistance.
  • Actions and speechifying from President Trump, have built up fears that signing up for these desperately needed benefits—that these people are legally entitled to— is causing them problems in future chiefly the malnutrition of their children.
  • The projected new rules and policy from the Department of Homeland Security, coupled with a leaked executive order plan from Trump, signing up for these legal benefits would be taken as a fact against the issuance of citizenship. It would allow the immigration authorities to
  • If passed, the rule would allow authorities to invalidate legal resident status from beneficiaries enrolled in SNAP benefits.


According to statistics from the American Community Survey, children with foreign-born parents and living in poverty are less likely than children with native parents living in poverty to be enrolled in the food stamp program. This additionally suggests that there are extra barriers that immigrant families face in enrollment compared to native families.

One researcher is of the view that the policy is known as “public charge,” has been a part of U.S. immigration policy since 1882 and was intended to prevent people (with criminal records of mental disorders) coming into the country who prove to be financially burden. The US Homeland security, on the other hand, stands with the argument that the broadening of the Public Charge policy is aimed to “promote immigrant self-sufficiency” level and ensure that they “are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers”.

Different studies and surveys conducted, judged, that the tactics proposed by the Trump administration seem to be working to achieve the desired results. These policies are forcing immigrants to choose between feeding their kids and what their future immigration status may be.


It can be inferred from the above factual information that after 10 years of consistent gains, the number of immigrant families enrolled in SNAP, fell by 10 percent in 2018. The majority of the people missed their legal right out of fear that it could impact their immigration status.

Besides, from being a repulsive attack on the poor and vulnerable, there is a range of economic arguments in favor of extending these sorts of benefits to immigrant households.

The country’s “public charge” standard that expresses whether an immigrant is likely to become a burden to the economy only reflects on participation in cash-assistance programs, but after promulgation could include Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP, and housing subsidies.





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