On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security will close a public comment period regarding their newly proposed “Public Charge” Rule. For nearly two decades, immigration officials have explicitly reassured immigrant families that participation in programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and Medicaid, would not affect their ability to become lawful permanent residents. But under the proposed rule, such reassurances would be swiftly unraveled.
The new rule would spur immigrants who are legally authorized and who pay taxes to participate in programs such as SNAP to forgo assistance or disenroll, compromising their food security, economic safety and health. If adopted, the rule would worsen health outcomes, thereby increasing the use of emergency room visits — the burden of which will be beholden to taxpayers who include the very immigrant families in consideration of citizenship.
For the past five years, Colorado Springs Food Rescue has seen how food insecurity already effects immigrant families in our community. We have steadily built relationships and co-created healthy grocery programs alongside neighbors, serving over 15,000 people in 2018 and distributing over $3.5 million worth of groceries at no-cost since founding.
But we readily acknowledge that charity isn’t enough. In fact, 95 percent of nutrition assistance for low-income communities comes from an amalgam of government programs, including SNAP.
The proposed change arrives just as Congress decides on the fate of SNAP itself. But everyone from our immigrant neighbors, to university researchers, to leaders on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of SNAP for rural and urban communities. The Senate’s bipartisan version of the Farm Bill protects SNAP funding. It is commonly recognized that SNAP is incredibly beneficial for local economies; every dollar of SNAP benefits spent generates nearly two dollars in economic activity. Moreover, according to a recent joint study conducted by Northwestern University and University of California Berkeley, “food stamp access during childhood is linked to a 5 percentage point reduction in heart disease and an 18 percentage point increase in high school completion rates, compared to those who lacked access.”
In 2017, Colorado Springs Food Rescue started working in conjunction with El Paso County Public Health on crafting El Paso County’s first “Food System Assessment”, the purpose of which is to determine policy, systems and environmental changes that promote fresh food access in Colorado Springs and El Paso County. An aspect of this assessment has been gathering stories from across our community.
Nearly every week we hear troubling stories from our immigrant neighbors regarding fear in enrolling in SNAP, and its simultaneous importance. Just this morning, I spoke with Mary (name changed to protect anonymity), who helps run one of our no-cost grocery programs. “How else would my family eat without SNAP?” she says. “I’m on disability but I still work, and all of my income goes to pay rent. And I still come up short... I can’t imagine not having these benefits. Myself and my five children would simply starve.”
As we enter the reflective holiday season, I’m haunted by those perennial words so often recited by Mother Teresa: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” As the Department of Homeland Security continues to take public comments before Monday’s deadline, may we take time to contemplate the effects that the proposed public charge rule would have on our immigrant neighbors.
Zac Chapman serves as the executive director of Colorado Springs Food Rescue, the mission of which is to cultivate a healthy, equitable food system in the greater Colorado Springs community. He also serves as a board member on the Food Policy Advisory Board of El Paso County and is a member of the Colorado Food Policy Network.