Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIVE - By Kate Maehr and John Bouman

On a frigid morn­ing ear­lier this month on the South Side, peo­ple of ev­ery race and age lined up out the front door of the Greater Lawn Pub­lic Health Cen­ter for two hours to re­ceive bags of sweet pota­toes, cel­ery, squash and more.

Many were Latina moth­ers with young chil­dren in tow. Al­most with­out fail, the kids’ eyes lit up with joy upon see­ing the boxes of man­goes at the end of the line — a poignant re­minder to be thank­ful for the sim­ple plea­sures of life.

It’s hard to fathom any­one want­ing to deny low-in­come fam­i­lies ba­sic food as­sis­tance. But a cruel and dam­ag­ing pro­posal put forth by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion would make it harder for im­mi­grants who are law­fully here to ob­tain per­ma­nent le­gal res­i­dence if they re­ceive pub­lic ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion As­sis­tance Pro­gram and Med­ic­aid, which are typ­i­cally used by low-paid work­ing fam­i­lies to make ends meet.

SNAP ben­e­fits, formerly known as food stamps, are a cru­cial front-line de­fense against the food in­se­cu­rity that leads peo­ple to food banks. And the need for them is ev­i­dent — more than 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple in Illi­nois are still at risk of hunger.

The mere threat of the pol­icy change is al­ready forc­ing some fam­i­lies to make an un­con­scionable choice be­tween risk­ing their chances for a green card and keep­ing their chil­dren healthy and fed. In some cases, im­mi­grant par­ents who don’t yet have their green cards are choos­ing to not ap­ply for food as­sis­tance for their chil­dren who are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens.

“It’s scary. I wish I could have an

an­swer for all the peo­ple,” said Jazmin Cerda, a pub­lic ben­e­fits as­so­ciate for the Brighton Park Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil, which serves the mostly Latino neigh­bor­hood of Brighton Park. Some of Cerda’s clients, many of whom are in dire need of as­sis­tance, are al­ready choos­ing to not en­roll in SNAP out of fear that it could hin­der their chances of per­ma­nent le­gal res­i­dence, she said. That likely means less food for fam­i­lies, which could lead to poorer health and ed­u­ca­tional out­comes for the chil­dren. “The need for as­sis­tance will be greater than what it is now,” Cerda said.

This dan­ger­ous pro­posal comes at a time when im­mi­grants are al­ready drop­ping out of SNAP, be­cause of the height­ened hos­tile rhetoric around im­mi­gra­tion and de­por­ta­tions. SNAP par­tic­i­pa­tion among im­mi­grant moth­ers of young chil­dren dropped 10 per­cent in the first half of this year, an alarm­ing de­cline af­ter 10 straight years of in­creas­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion, ac­cord­ing to new re­search from Chil­dren’s Health­Watch, a Bos­ton-based non­par­ti­san net­work of pe­di­a­tri­cians and re­searchers.

Com­monly re­ferred to as the “pub­lic charge” pro­posal, the White House seeks to ex­pand the def­i­ni­tion of what it means to be a pub­lic charge, or some­one who is de­pen­dent on govern­ment ser­vices, as a fac­tor in the de­ter­mi­na­tion of whether an im­mi­grant be­comes a le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dent.

As it is now, the pub­lic charge test largely per­tains to those re­ceiv­ing cash as­sis­tance or who are in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized for long-term care. Un­der the pro­posed change, that would be widened to in­clude par­tic­i­pa­tion in SNAP, Medi­care sub­si­dies for med­i­ca­tions, Med­ic­aid and hous­ing as­sis­tance. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the pro­posed new def­i­ni­tion is pre­sump­tive and wholly un­fair. If you’re an im­mi­grant try­ing to ob­tain a green card and don’t re­ceive any pub­lic ben­e­fits, you might still be con­sid­ered a pub­lic charge if it is deemed likely that you will at some point.

It’s es­sen­tially a poverty test that would cru­elly push low-in­come im­mi­grants Peo­ple wait in line at St. Colum­banus Catholic Church food pantry in Chicago to get Thanks­giv­ing tur­keys and other food on Wed­nes­day. fur­ther into the shad­ows.

But the need for as­sis­tance will not sim­ply dis­ap­pear. As wages re­main stag­nant and jobs with lim­ited ben­e­fits pro­lif­er­ate, hard­work­ing fam­i­lies will con­tinue to need sup­port to af­ford the ba­sics — in­clud­ing food dur­ing this hol­i­day sea­son and be­yond.

When im­mi­grant fam­i­lies drop out of SNAP for fear that they could risk their chance at le­gal per­ma­nent res­i­dency, they’ll turn to food pantries and soup kitchens. The Greater Chicago Food Depository and its 700 part­ner agen­cies in Chicago and through­out Cook County would not be able to meet such a surge in need. There will be other costs to pay. With fewer im­mi­grant fam­i­lies par­tic­i­pat­ing in SNAP, there will be a de­cline in re­tail sales, which will in turn put jobs at risk.

No fam­ily should have to worry about where their next meal will come from.

Kate Maehr is ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. John Bouman is pres­i­dent of the Sargent Shriver Na­tional Cen­ter on Poverty Law.

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