Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

Why Some U.S Citizens Might Have To Choose Between Food, Health, And Their Family

Oct 23, 2018


Terri Pedraza is assembling bags of food for children to bring home for the weekend. She’s a volunteer at Food Link for Tulare County. But, she says, kids don’t just go hungry on the weekends.

She knows because her own son always asks to bring extra burritos in his school lunch for his friends.

 

"My burritos went from three, six to a dozen," Pedraza says.

 

Nicole Celaya, the community food system director at Food Link, says they "run across this all the time."

 

"The people that are picking the food and packing the food and processing the food can’t eat the food, can’t afford the food," Celaya says. "It's a sad, sad kind of irony."

 

Celaya says the demand for food here could get worse. That’s because of safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, would be added to what the government calls a "public charge."

 

The term “public charge” is a phrase used by the government to describe undocumented immigrants who rely on or are likely to rely on federal assistance.  A recent proposal by the Trump administration would widen the scope of the kind of aid that falls under the public charge, and that could make it harder for immigrants to get legal status.

 

“We’re already serving hundreds of thousands of families per year. If people are afraid to use SNAP, afraid to access those benefits then it’s going to put more of a strain on us because they’re going to be coming to us for those food resources," Celaya says.

 

If the proposal passes, undocumented immigrants could be penalized if their U.S citizen family members are using some type of federal aid.

 

Lourdes Santiago lives in Farmersville with her husband, two kids and lots of dogs.

She goes to Food Link to make ends meet.

 

“At the end of the month it kind of stretched out the vegetables, or whatever they’re giving, that usually helps me a lot," Santiago says.

 

Santiago is the only one in her family who isn’t a U.S citizen. She is in the process of becoming one. But, even so, she and her family are advised not to use any type of federal assistance, like food stamps or Medi-Cal.

 

“We have been told by our lawyer that any type of help like that would hurt our chances of me becoming legal so we don’t seek that kind of help because of that reason," Santiago says.

 

Her lawyer's advice is sound. That’s because the Trump administration wants new and aspiring citizens, like Santiago, to be self-reliant rather than depend on government assistance. The chairman at the Fresno County Republican Party agrees. Fred Vanderhoof says the country can’t afford to support everyone, and if people do receive government aid it should only be temporary.  

 

Vienna Barnes, the deputy director for Tulare Works at the Health and Human Services Agency says more than half of the people in Tulare County use some type of assistance like Medi-Cal, food stamps or CalWORKs. CalWORKs provides eligible families with cash aid.

 

“Anywhere from your children up to your seniors are going to suffer," she says."That population is barely being able to make ends meet, and so now we’re taking away assistance and I see maybe homeless increases. They’re not going to be able to put food on the table. They’re not going to be able to get healthcare so you have a sicker community and I see that can have a tremendous effect on our community and our state as a whole.”    

 

In California, undocumented kids are eligible for Medi-Cal and so are adults, but only in emergency situations. Michelle Quiogue is a family doctor in Bakersfield and represents the California Academy of Family Physicians. She says people may stop seeking services like Medi-Cal if the proposal becomes a reality.

 

“This is just one example of many ways that the federal government is trying to undermine progressive values, but California has consistently resisted and created our own vision for the future and what compassionate care needs to look like," Quiogue says.

 

Celaya is worried families would be faced with difficult choices.

 

“It’s basically a choice between daily needs and the need to keep your family together for the long-term," Celaya says."If you’re actively working to do it the right way and get in line like people ask, but then all of these things are working against you, not to mention the cost already and the time that it takes to become a naturalized citizen, this on top of everything is just  going to make it harder.”

 

And, she says, food demands can’t be met solely by volunteer services like hers. That’s why government services like SNAP exist.

 

The proposal is posted on the Federal Register website. People can comment on it until December 10.