WASHINGTON – Yelena Sokolov sometimes hesitates to lecture her immigrant clients at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington about healthy eating.
She knows they are poor — many recently arrived from former Soviet states — and cannot afford nutritious meals. And she knows they cannot get food stamps because Congress yanked the benefits from most legal immigrants during welfare reform in 1996.
“You don’t feel comfortable talking to clients about quality food when you know how limited their funds are,” Sokolov said. “The money that they have goes towards rent and whatever is left is not nearly enough so people can get quality nutritional food that is crucial for their health.”
Sokolov and other Maryland immigrant advocates are hailing a proposal in President Bush’s budget, due out Monday, that would loosen restrictions and make food stamps available to low-income immigrants who have lived legally in this country for at least five years.
The provision would cost $2.1 billion over 10 years and would make an estimated 363,000 Green Card holders eligible for the federal program that subsidizes some grocery purchases, said a U.S. Agriculture Department spokeswoman. The plan would not be implemented until 2006.
It is unclear how many immigrants in Maryland could have benefits restored if Congress accepts Bush’s plan, but the Food Research and Action Center reported that 12,800 immigrants in the state were kicked off food stamp rolls in 1996 — a loss of $895,000 in federal funding. Nationwide, close to 1 million immigrants lost food stamp benefits in 1996.
Le Phu, activities director at Maryland Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Association in Silver Spring, said the White House proposal would especially help older immigrants, many of whom worked for many years in this country before retiring.
“I think this would be (particularly good) for the elderly because if you’re young, you can work, but it’s hard for them,” Phu said. “Most immigrants work very hard and very few depend on welfare, and for the elderly, this would be a good thing.”
Citizen children of immigrant parents are also likely to benefit from changes, advocates said. Those kids may qualify for food stamps but their parents often do not apply, wrongly fearing they will compromise their immigration status by enrolling their children.
“When not everybody in the household is eligible, sometimes the parents are not going in and enrolling,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Action and Research Center. “This will mean a larger food stamp allotment in the house and there will be more food on the table for everyone.”
Steve Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, said Bush’s proposal demonstrates a softening of the anti-immigrant mood that led to the 1996 cuts. While some say Bush’s initiative is aimed at swaying Hispanic voters, Hill said it is also sound public policy.
“People can be skeptical for the motivations for this policy change, but in any case, it’s a good thing,” he said. “People are dirt poor and they don’t have any safety net.”
Some advocates worry, however, that publicity about the Bush proposal will confuse immigrants who were kicked off rolls and disappoint those who still will not qualify for benefits.
Mary Wendeln, social services coordinator for CASA of Maryland, said many of her Salvadoran clients would not enjoy restored benefits because they carry work permit visas, not Green Cards.
“The thing that concerns me about this is the hype,” Wendeln said. “It’s five years since welfare reform, and for people who have been cut off, that’s still a sore spot.”