California is moving toward food assistance for all populations—including undocumented immigrants￼
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Lawmakers and advocates are urging Gavin Newsom to remove immigration and age restrictions from the state’s food assistance program.
Undocumented immigrants experience food insecurity at much higher rates than other populations, yet they are largely unable to access government food assistance programs. This may soon change in California.
Advocates and lawmakers are taking a two-pronged approach, pushing the state to make a long-term investment in food access for undocumented communities. Senate Bill 464, introduced last year by state Senator Melissa Hurtado, would expand eligibility for state-funded nutrition benefits regardless of immigration status. The Food4All campaign, created by the food policy advocacy organization Nourish California and the immigrant rights group California Immigrant Policy Center, has spent more than two years putting pressure on Governor Gavin Newsom to remove the immigration status roadblocks from California’s nutrition safety net.
Forty-five percent of undocumented immigrants in California are affected by food insecurity, but have few options for assistance—and many are wary of government programs because of fear of repercussions and confusion caused by complex state and federal laws. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—known in California as CalFresh—is open to low-income American citizens and households in which at least one member has had a “qualified” immigration status for at least five years. The state-funded California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) was created to cover qualified immigrants—including Lawful Permanent Residents, refugees, and asylees—who have not lived in the United States for at least five years.
Both programs exclude undocumented immigrants.
In January, Newsom included funding in his 2022-2023 proposed budget to remove immigration exclusions from CFAP—but only for undocumented Californians aged 55 and older. Those behind the Food4All campaign say this doesn’t go far enough in a state that has the highest poverty rate in the nation while at the same time being the top food supplier in the U.S. and having one of the most powerful economies in the world.
“One of our biggest challenges is ensuring that nutrition safety net programs are equitable for all people,” said Betzabel Estudillo, senior advocate at Nourish California. “We need to stop and consider why undocumented immigrants and other immigrant populations have been explicitly excluded from CalFresh and the California Food Assistance Program, and we need to address and remove racist and xenophobic laws.”
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California is often portrayed as one of the most immigrant-friendly states in the nation. While the state has a history of creating more inclusive policies for immigrant populations than at the federal level, it’s also true that undocumented immigrants are largely blocked from state programs that would enable them to access basic necessities. Understanding why—and why many immigrant communities remain afraid of accessing benefits—requires a bit of a history lesson.
‘Immigrants don’t belong here’
Undocumented immigrants—including children—have never been eligible for food stamps, and over the years federal officials have implemented policies to reduce other immigrant populations from accessing food assistance.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This law harshly restructured the nation’s entire welfare system, but was particularly devastating to immigrant communities, forcing Lawful Permanent Residents—who had previously been fully eligible—to wait five years before they could access federal public benefits. Research shows that after PRWORA became law, eligible immigrants’ participation in safety net programs fell sharply, likely because of the fear and stigma that became associated with them. PRWORA is also shown to have increased the proportion of uninsured immigrant women and children–this is in spite of the more inclusive approach later adopted by states like California that removed the five-year wait for qualified immigrants.
But California is a mixed bag.
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Two years before PRWORA, California passed Proposition 187 which sought to punish undocumented immigrants by denying them access to public education and health care. The ballot measure, which was eventually struck down for being unconstitutional, also required police, health care professionals, and teachers to verify and report the immigration status of all individuals, including children.
“The message that these kinds of laws send is, ‘You don’t belong here and we’re closing our door to you,’” said Benyamin Chao, a policy analyst at the California Immigrant Policy Center. “That narrative has become so deeply ingrained that even when people are eligible and it’s safe for them to use public programs, they don’t enroll because they have been told over and over again that they don’t belong, these services are not for them, and they will be punished.”
There’s also no overstating the chilling effect that anti-immigrant laws can have on communities. Take the “public charge” rule, for example. This exclusionary and racist test has been part of federal immigration law for over 100 years; it’s designed to restrict immigrants from adjusting their status or entering the United States if it is determined they are likely to depend on the government as a source of support. In 2019, the Trump administration expanded “public charge” to include a broader scope of “government assistance.” Under Trump, this included non-citizens who received one or more public benefits for more than 12 months. The administration also added requirements that would have made it even more difficult for people to immigrate. For example, characteristics like disability status, English proficiency, and income level would be judged more harshly.
Trump’s regulations were struck down about a year ago, but a recent survey found that three out of four immigrant families were unaware that the previous administration’s public charge changes were repealed. The good news is that 50 percent of respondents said that knowledge about the reversal of the rule made them more likely to use safety net programs when necessary.
“There’s a lot at stake here,” Estudillo said. “Food is a human right. Everyone deserves to eat, but there is still so much stigma associated with food assistance programs and so many false narratives about who needs access to these programs.”
‘Everyone should have access to food’
Nearly half of the farm workers in California’s Central Valley report that they experience food insecurity—and this is the community that Senator Hurtado had in mind when she introduced SB 464.
Hurtado’s district is in the Central Valley, known as the “salad bowl” because it produces a fourth of the nation’s food. The senator said it’s a “cruel reality” that the farm workers who toil in the fields to keep Americans fed cannot afford to put food on their own tables. As the daughter of immigrants who grew up in poverty and experienced food insecurity, she wanted to do something about it.
“These are people who feed us, and they are people who have worked through the pandemic and deal with the effects of climate change; they work through extreme heat, droughts, and wildfires,” Hurtado said. “It should not be controversial to say that everyone should have access to food, documented or not.”
Yet it clearly is controversial, but there are a number of groups in California that operate from the understanding that food is a human right. Take Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative, for example. The Fresno-based organization connects undocumented farm workers to services like local food distribution programs. Clarissa Vivian-Petrucci, special project coordinator at the immigrant integration organization, told The Counter that farm workers often stand in line at food distribution sites two to three hours in advance, fearful the food will run out and they won’t be able to bring anything home to their children.
“The situation is very serious. People are going hungry and even those who can enroll in a [government] program because they have U.S. citizen children will not because they are still afraid of the public charge,” Vivian-Petrucci said.
“The message that these kinds of laws send is, ‘You don’t belong here and we’re closing our door to you.’”
Even if community members don’t mention the public charge rule by name, it’s clear there is a looming fear about repercussions associated with accessing programs.
Guillermo and Augustina, who are only using their first names for safety reasons, are undocumented California farm workers who said that food insecurity is a real issue for their family and people in the Indigenous farmworker community.
The married couple are Mixtec and hail from the town of Santa Cruz in the Mexican state of Guerrero. According to the Indigenous empowerment organization the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), California is home to an estimated 170,000 indigenous migrants from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán, including Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Purépechas. These Indigenous populations often only speak their native, pre-Hispanic languages.
Guillermo and Augustina, who speak Mixtec but not Spanish, settled in California with their two children in 2019 and almost immediately went to work in the strawberry fields. They joined thousands of other Indigenous migrants in the agricultural industry, earning seasonal wages and receiving no benefits. Through multiple layers of interpretation, the couple explained to The Counter that their food costs aren’t exorbitant because they rely on inexpensive staples like beans, rice, and maseca to make tortillas, but as their workloads decrease during the off season, purchasing even basic necessities is a hardship–and produce is often out of the question.
courtesy of Guillermo and Augustina
The couple is lucky to live in a tight-knit community that includes relatives, so when they don’t have enough money for food, there are people they can turn to. However, Guillermo and Augustina’s family members also struggle with food insecurity.
“In bad years, we may only work four hours a day and that’s all the work we can get–and that’s when the difficulty starts when it comes to accessing food,” Guillermo explained. “We always want to buy vegetables, but the cost is more than we can afford during these times. These are the circumstances that many people in my community find themselves in.”
Removing immigration restrictions from California’s food benefits program has the ability to drastically improve the quality of life for undocumented farmworker families. Research links food insecurity to harmful outcomes for children, including poor physical and mental health and adverse effects on development. Guillermo said that if the law changed to provide access to food for undocumented families, that would be “great,” but he had concerns about how participating in the program could later be weaponized against his family.
“What if the next [official] changes the law in the future, would we have to pay back the support they gave us? That would be our biggest worry. When our children become adults, would they have to pay back the food benefits? We would sign up for the support if it was guaranteed the law would not change to hurt us in the future,” Guillermo said.
“It should not be controversial to say that everyone should have access to food, documented or not.”
But there are other barriers, too. Augustina explained that sometimes agency representatives of public benefits offering help to farm workers only speak English and Spanish. “We need help from people who can speak our language. We would need support to fill out the forms and we would need to know in advance what kind of documents would be needed to access this support,” she said.
These are issues that are already on Vivian-Petrucci’s radar. The special projects coordinator said that if the California Food Assistance Program expands to provide state-funded nutrition benefits to undocumented immigrants, efforts to reach families who speak Indigenous languages should be a priority. However, this would require collaboration between organizations and government agencies—and thinking outside of the box. In the past, live Facebook presentations have proven to be a powerful tool for reaching communities, and Vivian-Petrucci said that organizations without Indigenous language speakers can coordinate with consulate officials who have access to translator databases.
“There are people in the community who don’t speak English or Spanish, who cannot read, and who do not know how to use a computer,” Vivian-Petrucci said. “There will be obstacles, but if we can work together we can eliminate these barriers and make sure people have equitable access to food.”
SB 464 is unlikely to move this year, so those behind the Food4All campaign have set their sights on the state budget. California currently has a budget surplus of $68 billion and thanks to a proposal from Assemblymember Miguel Santiago, advocates hope Governor Newsom will include funds in the state’s June budget to expand CFAP to undocumented immigrants of all ages.
“There will be obstacles, but if we can work together we can eliminate these barriers and make sure people have equitable access to food.”
In the coming days, Newsom will unveil the updated 2022-23 California state budget proposal. Meanwhile, the surplus has prompted a flurry of spending proposals from lawmakers, including a plan to send $200 checks to California taxpayers to help with soaring gas prices. Estudillo said she hopes Newsom ultimately moves away from these kinds of short-term, one-off efforts.
“The question I always go back to is whether we are helping those most in need—especially low-income, undocumented immigrants who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic and are shut out of safety net programs,” Estudillo said. “This budget surplus is unprecedented and I think it’s important to use our state’s resources wisely and not lose sight of the long-term investments we could make that would really get to the root of so many injustices and inequities in our state.”
In a statement to The Counter, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said that California has made “historic investments” to support immigrant communities, including expanding access to health care and anti-poverty programs, bolstering pro bono immigration services, and supporting entrepreneurship and educational opportunities.
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“The Governor has built upon this by proposing to expand Medi-Cal to everyone eligible regardless of immigration status, expand food assistance to all eligible older adults regardless of immigration status, invest $500 base deposits into college savings accounts for millions of immigrant families, expand migrant child care, and created Universal Transitional Kindergarten free for all four-year-olds,” the statement said.
The spokesperson did not respond to The Counter’s question regarding whether Governor Newsom would use the budget surplus to expand the California Food Assistance Program to undocumented immigrants of all ages, or comment on how the administration weighs short-term assistance like $200 gas payments with long-term investments.
“Gas rebates for people like me who have cars? Sure, that feels really nice,” Estudillo said. “But are we truly supporting those who are most in need? Not just people who don’t have cars, but people who regularly struggle to put food on the table? You can’t eat a gas rebate.”