September 1: Million Immigrants Face Food Stamp Cutoff

"We have fed you all for a thousand years, and here we are still unfed."

Revolutionary Worker #922, September 7, 1997

Out in the vast stretches of U.S. farmland, most of the hard stoop labor is done by immigrant families. Mexican and Central American farmworkers have long traveled up and down California's broad agricultural valleys harvesting fruits and vegetables. More and more immigrant families now work the fields throughout the U.S.--in Florida's citrus belt, on New York's Long Island, in the Michigan apple belt, in the Carolinas and throughout the South.

In Iowa, immigrants from Latin America and Asia now work in the meat-packing plants. In urban areas and suburbs, immigrant workers cook and serve the food, wash the dishes and bus the tables.

Wherever you go in the U.S., much of the food in the market and on the table has been raised, harvested and prepared by immigrant hands. That's why it is particularly perverse and unjust for the federal government to cut off federal food stamps to one million legal immigrants on September 1.

Farmworker families will be especially hard hit--their wages have dropped sharply and they rely heavily on food stamps to eat during seasonal layoffs. The New York Times reported (March 31) that the real wages of farmworkers had dropped 20 percent over the last 20 years--reducing the typical income for farmworker families to $8,000 a year. In California's Fresno county, which has the highest agricultural production of any county in the U.S., the population has been relying on $100 million a year in food stamps in order to eat--and about 15,000 legal immigrants are now expected to lose that money for food.

Undocumented workers have long been denied even the basic relief of food stamps--and now documented immigrants will also be shoved aside. This new cutoff of food stamps will deliberately create even more widespread hunger among many in the ghettos and barrios of U.S. cities, as well as deep within what is perhaps the most productive farmlands in the world.

A spokesperson for California's Governor Pete Wilson defended the federal cuts, saying, "People must work for their bread and butter." These cold words deliberately ignore "who feeds who" in this world.

As the old revolutionary song says: "We have fed you all for a thousand years, and here we are, still unfed."


A year ago the White House and Congress passed their Welfare Abolition measure--which moved to systematically withdraw the safety net of welfare and food stamps from millions of people. It was a plan for deliberately increasing the desperation and suffering in the poorest sections of the working class.

Massive cuts in welfare benefits have been carried out across the country--and new workfare requirements have been imposed. In addition the federal law imposes a five-year lifetime limit on welfare--which means that millions will have no place to turn for help.

In this summer's "budget compromise," the Clinton administration and the Republican congress finalized the parts of Welfare Repeal that deal with immigrants. They decided not to cut off SSI disability payments to legal immigrants who are currently getting them. However, they are pressing ahead with a plan to deny such benefits to legal immigrants who entered the U.S. after August 22, 1996. Immigrants who can't work because of injuries or other health problems are going to be denied federal disability benefits--even though workers who are citizens will get benefits for the exact same injuries.

This new budget also presses ahead with the cruel plan to cut back on food stamps. In July the plan was upheld by a federal judge, who ruled against a legal suit by New York City and upheld the constitutionality of denying benefits to legal immigrants.

This September 1 cutoff of federal food stamps marks a major leap in the whole process of destroying the social safety net. The federal government intended to "save" $22 billion over five years by cutting away at food stamps--the original 1996 Welfare Abolition law reduced food stamp benefits by 3 percent across the board. Half of these federal food stamp cuts are aimed at over three million households with incomes below half of the federal poverty line (meaning below $6,250 a year for a family of three).

Meanwhile families of legal immigrants will be hit hardest because their food stamps will often be completely cut off--not just reduced. $3.7 billion are expected to be "saved" by 2002 by cutting off food help to legal immigrants. Only a few categories of "non-citizens" will reportedly remain eligible for federal food stamps--including military veterans, certain political refugees, and those who can document 40 quarters of legal U.S. employment.

Sixteen percent of the immigrants being cut off food stamps are elderly, 16 percent are children, and many of the rest are employed in extremely low-paying jobs. One-fifth of the federal food stamp reductions targeted families where at least one member has a job. In California, the numbers are even higher--about 30 percent of California's food stamp recipients are working people who don't receive other cash welfare--and 40 percent of this group are Latinos who are often forced to take jobs that don't cover the cost of shelter and food.


One woman told her story to a reporter: Guadalupe Quintero is a 37-year-old woman who moved to Long Beach, California legally from Mexico nine years ago. Her husband, Rafael, works at a fiberglass plant in Torrance, making $260 a week for a family of six. Her oldest son, who is 19, also works, contributing $60 a week of his $150 paycheck. A year ago, the family suffered a major car accident. They had no health insurance and were left with a mountain of medical bills. Right now, the family's budget is supplemented by $220 a month in food stamps. It is the only public aid they receive, other than the state's Medi-Cal coverage. Guadalupe's three other children are 17, 15 and 9--they attend public school. The 17-year-old, born here, is a U.S. citizen and will continue to qualify for food stamps after Sept. 1. But the rest of the family will no longer be considered for food stamps--and the family will have trouble putting enough food on the table.


In Chicago, Leonidas and Rosa Alba Perez described how the cuts will affect their family. Leonidas, who is 78, worked at a packing plant in Chicago until he was fired for being too old. Rosa worked in a frozen food plant for four years, but developed such severe arthritis that she can no longer work. They now receive $800 a month in federal benefits--not counting food stamps--and pay $750 in rent and utilities. Now they will lose $277 a month in food stamps. Their greatest fear: the only family member who can go to work to fill in the gap is their 15-year-old daughter Emma, who may now have to drop out of high school to feed the family.


Last year, the Urban Institute estimated that the overall cuts in welfare would push 2.6 million more people into poverty--and added that the cut in food stamps would play a major part in that impoverishment. Typically, the Clinton administration has insisted that cutting off food stamps to legal immigrants was unfair and unjustified--but then approved the cuts anyway! Meanwhile the same budget bill that finalized these cuts was marked by massive tax benefits for the richest 1 percent of the population. Food is snatched away from the poorest families--while literally billions of dollars are handed over to a tiny upper crust of millionaires.

The September 1 food stamp cutoff for legal immigrants hit particularly hard in four states--California, Florida, New York and Texas--which account for three-quarters of all immigrants on food stamps. It is unclear what the impact of all these cuts will be because the situation varies from state to state. And there has been continuous struggle inside the federal government and state governments over the details of how these cuts will come down.

In most states, September 1 will simply mark the end of federal food stamps for legal immigrants--which average $172 a month per household. In Texas, to take one example, 168,000 immigrants were receiving food stamps earlier this year. But so far, there have been no steps taken to provide relief for all these people who will now lose these benefits.

Many operators of food pantry charities point out that they are already overwhelmed and that, without help, they will be forced to turn people away. A study by Second Harvest, a national food bank network, estimates that people in Illinois alone will be denied the equivalent of 946 million pounds of food over the next six years as a result of food stamp cuts during that time. An Illinois state representative pointed out that the decline in nutrition will be severe enough that it can be expected to produce a rise in the use of hospital emergency rooms.

One-third of the immigrants losing federal food stamps live in California--15 percent of the national cuts hit Los Angeles county alone. The Speaker of the State's Assembly estimated that 350,000 people may lose food stamps in California during August--though there is a debate within the ruling class about how many will avoid cuts through exemptions or seeking citizenship. One lobbying group estimates that 100,000 children will be hurt by immigrant food stamp cuts in California alone. Donna Wolfe of the California Statewide Lao Hmong Coalition said, "There is panic and havoc in our community. Welfare reform is a health and human disaster in the making."

Because many more people will be forced to choose between paying rent and buying food, there are predictions of a rise in homelessness among immigrants and others cut off food stamps. At least two suicides among legal immigrants in California, in Stockton and Chino, are blamed on the despair of having nowhere to turn for help.

The ripple effect of these cuts will be felt throughout immigrant communities. "Losing food stamps hurts in two ways," says Emma Tran, manager of Hanson's Market, on Atlantic Avenue, near Poly High School in Long Beach, California. Her store does more business in food stamps than it does in cash. "First the family gets hurt," she says. "Then the business gets hurt."

In at least 10 states, new laws have been passed that provide some state-paid food benefits to at least a section of those being cut off federal food stamps--for example, elderly, children or disabled immigrants--while often still cutting off food stamps to the working poor, like farmworkers.

In many states, officials claim they are trying to reduce the impact of the cuts by pressuring immigrants to become citizens. In New Jersey, for example, state food benefits for disabled and elderly immigrants stop if they don't apply for citizenship as soon as they are eligible. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has created a naturalization task force of 15 county agencies and 22 public and private organizations to promote a citizenship campaign. Forcing U.S. citizenship on people, using the threat of starvation, is itself an outrage. At the same time, the attacks on immigrants have produced such a massive backlog of applications--that hundreds of thousands of people who do apply are likely to be cut off while their papers are being processed. In addition, many legal immigrants, including many migrant farmworkers, do not qualify for the five-year residency requirement because their lives and work cause them to move back and forth between the U.S. and their home countries.


In California, Hung Huynh, a 60-year-old Vietnamese immigrant, said she filed her citizenship application 10 months ago and is still waiting. But she has received a notice informing her that her $98 monthly allotment of food stamps would cease on September 1.

"It will be very difficult for our family to survive," said Huynh. She is a former seamstress who turned to government aid after hurting her back. She lives in San Francisco with her retired husband and mother. "We can't understand why this is happening."


The massive cuts in the U.S. welfare system are routinely justified as "moving people from welfare dependency to work." This is bogus from many angles--but nowhere is this justification more ridiculous than when the federal government takes food stamps from legal immigrants. Many of these people are working--the main "dependency" affecting their lives is the dependency of U.S. capitalists on exploiting immigrants at extremely low wages.

By cutting both food stamps and welfare, those ruling the U.S. are coldly attempting to increase the desperation of the poorest sections of the working class. From the point of view of U.S. capitalism, this heightened suffering, hunger and desperation is all part of "increasing the competitiveness" of the U.S. economy. It is intended to lower the system's "overhead" for social services, while forcing millions more people to accept jobs at lower and lower wages. It is intended to force immigrants to return to their home countries whenever they temporarily can't find work.

These are quite simply attempts to boost the profitability of the U.S. economy by cutting food and protection from those who are most poor and vulnerable. It is calculated cruelty.

These cuts are also part of an effort to persecute and isolate immigrants--both undocumented and documented. Undocumented immigrants have already been denied access to most social services--and they are hounded both at the border and throughout society. The California 187 law denies immigrants all kinds of state services and tries to turn state employees like teachers and social workers into spies for the immigration police. Meanwhile the federal immigration service (INS) reports that this year they have increased deportations of undocumented immigrants 50 percent over last year. This doesn't count the million people who are now annually captured and deported directly at the increasingly militarized border.

Legal immigrants have traditionally received many social services just like citizens. Now in a major and extremely unjust change in U.S. immigration policy, the new federal welfare cuts deny legal immigrants equal treatment.

The result of such measures has been a rise in anger, fear and desperation among immigrant people. In rural Madera, California, for example, school officials report that elementary school enrollment has dropped--because many immigrant families fear they may be deported if their children register for school.

One student at Hoover Elementary School in L.A.'s Pico Union said, after 187 was passed, "They treat us like we are dirt... like we are an enemy."

Every details of these cuts and moves are outrageous. They cannot be allowed to go down without resistance and protest on many levels.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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