New Jersey

I-Team: Fearing Deportation, Immigrant Families in Tri-State Are Forgoing Needed Food Benefits

"It scares me because I start to think they have all my info and then at any time they can grab you and then what happens to my kids?" one mother of eight says

What to Know

  • Local non-profit groups say there's a trend of undocumented families not seeking food stamps because they fear it'll put them on gov't radar
  • Many of the families have children who are U.S. citizens, entitling them to the benefits, but they still express fear of deportation
  • NYC agency that administers federal food stamp programs say their data doesn't reflect trend of decline; community groups still concerned

Some needy immigrants in the tri-state area are giving up free food from the government and charitable groups, saying they’d rather risk hunger than deportation. 

Several local anti-poverty groups tell the I-Team their immigrant clients are asking for help getting off the food stamp rolls because they fear accepting the benefit will expose them to scrutiny from federal immigration officials. 

"The word on the street is that receiving benefits can increase your chances to be deported," said Jim Wengler, director of benefits access at the non-profit group Hunger Free NYC, which helps the poor claim public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. "We’ve had people come into our centers and ask for help closing out their cases. 

Wengler said several local community-based centers, including his group and some, clinics, hospitals and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) facilities, saw food stamp applications and renewal requests plunge in early February after President Trump took office. Wengler said the numbers rebounded a bit in March but were still comparatively low based on the normal volume he sees. 

"It's a really frightening situation," Wengler said. "People are going hungry." 

In interviews with the I-Team, several undocumented parents confirm the fear accepting such benefits will come back to burn them. One East Harlem couple says they made a painful decision to cancel their food stamps. The couple asked not to be identified. 

Like many families with mixed immigration status, the parents are undocumented, from Mexico City, but their three young children were born in America. As U.S. citizens, the children are entitled to $345 a month in food stamps; the benefit will run out at the end of April. 

Speaking in his tiny kitchen recently as he prepared burritos for his children, the father told the I-Team he works 70 hours a week in below minimum wage jobs. He says the food stamps have helped him feed his children for the past year. The couple doesn't have the money to buy the food needed to feed their whole family without the help of the food stamps, but the parents say they want to stay off the radar of federal immigration officials. 

"I buy food for my kids. Not for us, for my kids," the father said. "But right now I am scared because I hear a lot of things around New York." 

Several families tell the I-Team they’d rather eat fewer meals than risk being separated from their children if they face deportation. 

Another mother without papers who calls herself "Kristina" has eight children, several of whom are U.S. citizens and qualify for food stamps. She says the community-based non-profit LSA Family Health Service talked her out of canceling the benefits, but she remains fearful. 

"It scares me because I start to think they have all my info and then at any time they can grab you and then what happens to my kids?" she says. 

Local programs for the poor are conflicted about how to advise their needy clients on this subject. Wengler says he’s not comfortable assuring families that accepting benefits won’t harm them down the road. 

"We just don’t know what’s going to happen," he says. 

Recent statements by President Trump have fueled the fear, including one that said "those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially." A draft of a White House executive order leaked in February called for potentially expanding the list of benefits by which an immigrant could be defined as a public charge and thus be deported. 

A spokesman for the NYC Human Resources Administration, the local agency that administers the federal food stamp program, tells the I-Team their data does not reflect a trend of people discontinuing their benefits. According to HRA, the federal government does not possess a list of local food stamp recipients even though it is a federal program. City officials insist they have no plans to turn over any such lists. But such reassurances only go so far. The I-Team has learned some immigrants are afraid to even accept groceries from community-based food pantries that have no connection to government. 

At the West Side Campaign against Hunger, housed in the basement of a West 86th Street church, the freezers are full of tilapia, turkey and fresh produce. Spanish-speaking, grateful grandmothers wheel shopping carts and suitcases from all five boroughs to access the free, nutritious staples offered to the low income clientele. But in recent months, Gregory Silverman, a chef who runs the pantry, has noticed what he describes as an alarming trend. 

"We have customers calling on a regular basis asking to have their information taken out of our databases," he said. "They’re not willing to come in because of fear. And translating the message to them to say, 'It's okay,' is not really that easy." 

Silverman says dozens of clients a week have pulled out of the program, despite staff explaining their database is not viewed by immigration officials. 

The NY Common Pantry in East Harlem, which doles out enough groceries to provide about seven meals a month to its customers, has also noticed a downturn. Jose Garcia, a retired father from the Dominican Republic, says this pantry "helps his budget." Garcia says he no longer encounters some of his fellow immigrants on the food line. He says he worries about some of them who are collecting bottles and cans instead to make ends meet. 

"They afraid they getting arrested," he said. 

Some anti-hunger programs in New Jersey describe a similar situation. At the Christ Church Food Pantry in New Brunswick, director Judith Kuldinow says she has lost dozens of immigrant clients. 

"It’s sad that in this day in age that people don’t have enough food. That’s exactly why we’re here," Kuldinow said. "And now we’re one of the people they’re afraid to come to." 

The Trump administration did not respond to a message seeking comment left Thursday morning. 

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in New York declined comment and referred questions to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A message was left.

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