Rumors of citizenship troubles keep immigrants from getting legal benefits

Produce on 24th Street. Photo by Courtney Quirin.

Immigrants who can’t afford to feed their families are facing hunger rather than accepting benefits that rumors tell them could put their hopes of becoming citizens in jeopardy, according to immigration attorneys and those who work with food benefits.

“We have asylum seekers who are in homeless shelters and they haven’t accessed benefits because they’re afraid it’ll affect their case,” said Ana Herrera, an immigration attorney with Dolores Street Community Services.

Also, Herrera and others said that undocumented parents of children who are legal residents have stepped away from any government programs fearing that accessing them for their children will put the family in jeopardy.

In May, the city’s Human Services Agency and the SF-Marin Food Bank said that eligible immigrants had begun disenrolling or had been deciding against signing up for benefits out of fear that it could affect their ability to become citizens.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time that of the estimated 9,500 San Francisco households with at least one noncitizen, 150 per month had withdrawn from the program in March and April. The normal withdrawal rate is fewer than 60 a month. New applications to the program had decreased by 17 percent.

Since then, the numbers are back down but still high – 80 non citizens requested discontinuance in May. That said, things may be looking up – applications overall have returned to normal levels and 22 percent of all applications in May came from noncitizen households.

In the Mission, some 30 percent of respondents in a survey of Latino families reported incomes that put them below the federal poverty level, and 58 percent reported receiving food assistance in the last year.

The reason immigrants fear receiving benefits is because some kinds of aid can designate the recipient as a “public charge”  and being a public charge can be a barrier to citizenship.

According to current law, receiving food stamps does not make anyone a public charge. But part of the reason behind the fear among immigrants likely stems from a draft executive order that was leaked at the end of March. The memo indicated that the administration would change the rules so people who accepted food stamps could in fact face barriers to citizenship. It also included changes that could have made immigrants who use certain benefits subject to deportation.

That memo has not become law, but rumors of its existence put the community on edge and liaisons who help connect people with the help they need are scrambling to undo the damage.

“When that draft came out, it was like somebody pulled the rug out from everything we thought was stable,” said Francesca Costa, who manages outreach for the SF-Marin Food Bank. “No one confirmed any of it. Unfortunately…there’s a lot of damage done already without even having signed anything.”

Amy Lee, an immigration attorney who works at Jubilee Immigration Advocates on 16th Street near Dolores Street, said that  in public workshops, it’s been tricky to navigate the potential rule change because it just hasn’t materialized yet.

“We don’t actually talk about [the memo] at community presentations, because it’s hard to talk about something that may never happen,” she said. “We mainly talk about the fact that if you’re getting benefits for which you are eligible, you’re not gonna get deported.”

Food stamps remain available to asylees, immigrant permanent residents and people with certain with special visas. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive benefits. However, citizen children of undocumented parents are eligible, even if the undocumented parent has to fill out the application form.

In those cases, or when there are people with different immigration statuses in the same households, food assistance workers have also observed fear.

“There’s nothing wrong with it, but there might be somebody else in the household who’s scared that by being in the system they’re elevating their risk for deportation,” said Costa.

That, too, may be a fear spurred by false rumors. At the Mission Community Market at 22nd and Bartlett streets, participation in the food stamp program has been growing steadily. 

“[O]ur ambassadors in the community have been hearing rumors spreading that if you are an undocumented resident, and cancel your EBT benefits, you won’t be deported,” wrote Ali Pflaum, director of Strategic Planning and Community Outreach at the market.

Since undocumented immigrants cannot themselves receive benefits, that rumor could affect undocumented parents of citizen children, even though their children are perfectly eligible for the assistance.

Use of the program is actively encouraged. And at the Mission Community Market, $15 worth of food stamps turns into $30 worth of groceries through the market’s matching program. Anyone with questions can ask them in English or Spanish.

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