Far too many eligible Latino children are going hungry without nutritional assistance, and the Roby amendment would make an already terrible situation significantly worse.
The House version of the Farm Bill includes more than $16 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, primarily by making it more difficult for needy Americans to receive benefits. This borders on insanity when more than 46 million citizens rely on nutrition assistance benefits to have enough to eat and when nearly 4 million households with children are unable to provide adequate food for those children.
An amendment introduced by Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) would achieve some of these cuts by denying nutritional assistance to qualifying Americans if they live in a household with anyone who cannot prove they have authorization to live in the United States—even when those individuals are not seeking benefits for themselves.
This amendment is plainly directed at the children of undocumented immigrants. About a quarter of our nation’s children have immigrant parents, and out of all children of immigrants, more than 8 in 10 (86 percent) are U.S. citizens. Heartbreakingly, more than a quarter (26.2 percent) of Hispanic households experience food insecurity, a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group. Under the proposed restriction, 4.5 million U.S. citizen children would lose their access to nutrition assistance benefits and over 80 percent of the children who would lose benefits under the proposed restriction are Latino.
The amendment would also affect native-born citizens who do not have birth certificates or passports. Approximately 11 million native-born Americans have neither a birth certificate nor passport, and people making less than $25,000 per year are nearly twice as likely to lack these forms of documentation than those with higher incomes. In total, about 3 million low-income citizens do not have a passport or birth certificate in their home.
This amendment is utterly unnecessary because of the way nutrition assistance eligibility is already determined. In order to qualify for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, workers must meet eligibility criteria based on income and, in some cases, employment. An individual must already be a U.S. citizen or lawfully present noncitizen in addition to meeting the eligibility requirements. Undocumented immigrants are already barred from receiving assistance.
The legal status of household members who would not be receiving benefits is not currently required when an application is made for an eligible individual, though their income and assets are used in calculating eligibility. According to the United States Department of Agriculture this is because:
Some applicants (typically eligible children in families where other adults are not eligible) cannot apply on their own. They depend on adult household members to secure assistance. States must be able to structure an application process that enables these members to apply for children without divulging information about their own immigration status.
Immigrant families, including those with citizen children, are already less likely to apply for nutrition assistance benefits than families where all members are native-born, even when they qualify. In 2008 only 51 percent of eligible noncitizens participated in the program and only 55 percent of qualifying citizen children living with noncitizen adults were enrolled. Nationally, 67 percent of all eligible individuals participate, along with 86 percent of all eligible children.
Forcing household members who would not be receiving nutrition assistance benefits to prove their legal status would be antithetical to the goals of the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, which is to provide critical nutrition benefits to American citizens who might otherwise go hungry.
Sarah Jane Glynn is Economic Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.
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Sarah Jane Glynn