NEW YORK CITY—As the evening rush hour peaked, Blanca Palomeque stationed herself by the carts selling roasted corn, tamales, and ice cream at the exit to the 90th Street-Elmhurst Avenue subway stop in Queens. She spotted a woman pushing a baby in a pink stroller and tugging along two school-aged girls with pigtails.
“Excuse me, good afternoon, how are you?” Palomeque said in Spanish. “Do you have food stamps for your children? Here is some information.” She pushed a flyer into the mother’s hand before rushing over to a pregnant woman to speak with her as well. Palomeque repeated this process over and over again until the trains became less crowded, urging mothers and fathers and grandparents to look into their eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, for themselves, for their children, for a friend, for a neighbor.
Palomeque works for Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that provides legal aid, community organizing, and language classes to working-class New Yorkers, many of them immigrants. With Donald Trump in the White House, she told me, the tenor of her outreach has changed. “They ask me questions about food stamps,” she said. “‘Will I have problems now if I apply? Will I be detained? Will I be deported?’ I tell them: ‘Nothing has been signed yet. You don’t need to be scared. You might have the right to these services, or your children might have the right to these services.’”
Still, in New York and across the country, a climate of fear—sparked by Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement, a series of highly public raids, and a draft executive order that would push families off of means-tested benefit programs—has spooked some untold number of families away from the safety net. Of the 20 organizations working with documented and undocumented immigrants that I spoke with in recent weeks, 17 said they had seen legally eligible families declining to enroll or even unenrolling from programs, including SNAP, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, free school lunches, and the Women, Infants, and Children program.
“The immigration-enforcement order created chaos and fear,” said Wendy Cervantes of CLASP, a Washington-based anti-poverty nonprofit, referring to a Trump initiative to ramp up deportations. “The fear of immigration enforcement creates a chilling effect. We’ve seen seen this in states that have passed really aggressive and harsh anti-immigrant laws at a local level, and now we might be seeing it nationally.”
Through policy changes and simple anti-immigrant posturing, the Trump era will likely increase poverty and hunger in Latino communities, experts said, with children—in many cases, citizen children—among the hardest hit. Experts expect the worst effects to be among the poorest and lowest-information families, including those with significant language barriers and thin social ties in the United States. If the worst comes to pass, it will mean low-income infants and kids eating fewer or lower-quality calories, they said, missing more days of school, growing up in more stressful environments, and going to fewer doctor’s appointments.
“Nobody’s talking about the downstream effects on kids squeezed out of these programs, because of rule changes or simple fear,” said Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research & Action Center, a national anti-hunger nonprofit.
Right now, there is no state or national data showing how the Trump administration might be changing safety-net enrollment levels. But social scientists said anti-immigrant sentiment and increased deportation activity has had a long history of causing eligible families to drop out and shy away. In many cases, those are families with mixed immigration statuses: undocumented parents with children with birthright citizenship, for instance, or visa overstayers married to green-card holders. (Undocumented adults are barred from receiving public benefits, but their citizen kids are not.)
Such families are exceedingly common. New research by Silva Mathema of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration found that 16.7 million people in the United States live in a household with at least one unauthorized family member. Nearly 6 million citizen children live in such households. “There can be no us versus them,” Mathema wrote. “The Trump administration’s actions and directives ostensibly target the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who live in the United States, but they will also harm millions of American citizens all across the country who live and work beside these immigrants every day.”
Fear was the dominant emotion that kept coming up in my conversations with immigration experts, social workers, community organizers, anti-hunger advocates, lawyers, doctors, and immigrants themselves. Some community workers, like Palomeque at Make the Road New York, said they had continued to advise their client base to apply for programs, and to stress that no laws relating to benefit programs have changed. Others said that they could not in good faith tell immigrants that the deportation risk had not increased, or that signing up for the safety net would not put their families at risk.
“I’ve been doing this for 29 years,” said Stephanie Altman, a lawyer at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. “I’ve never seen it like this. We’ve never gotten these kinds of questions before. I’m trying to separate out the fear from the reality too. The fear is real. And I don’t know what the reality is now.”
The reports of eligible families pulling out of antipoverty programs are broad and, in some cases, acute. Eisner Health, a Los Angeles-based health-care provider with a low-income Latino client base, said it has seen a 20 percent drop in food-stamp enrollments, a 54 percent drop in Medicaid enrollments among children, and a 82 percent drop in enrollments in a local health program that serves indigent adults, including the undocumented. Re-enrollments across all programs had declined 40 percent, as well. (The group compared monthly enrollment averages from December through February with data from 2016.) “I wouldn’t have predicted at all that we would have been hit so hard,” said Dr. Deborah Lerner, Eisner’s chief medical officer. “I was shocked.”
In Atlanta, some schools and clinics are advising families with undocumented members not to sign up for anti-poverty programs, said Cynthia Román-Hernández of the Latin American Association, a nonprofit providing legal aid, education, and social services to immigrants. “Every client that comes into this building now, we have a safety plan for them,” Román-Hernández told me. “It covers how to prepare for anything that could happen, with a list of immigration lawyers and preparations they should make and information on what their rights are. People are scared, so scared, and we want them to have that information.”
At the Esperanza Center, a program of the Catholic Charities of Baltimore, some people were shying away from public programs while at the same time seeking more free healthcare and legal advice, said Val Twanmoh, the center’s director. “This week alone we did 84 consultations with an immigration attorney, which is unheard of,” she told me. “We’re also doing child-care authorization letters and power-of-attorney documents, so in the event that a household provider or parent is detained or deported, their family is taken care of.” A few weeks ago, the organization did 37 child-care authorizations in one day. Before the Trump era, it normally did a handful.
And in New Jersey, parents were pulling away from SNAP and WIC, a program designed to improve the health outcomes of the country’s most vulnerable infants and children, said Carlos Rodriguez, the executive director of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. “I strongly worry that this is going to start increasing food insecurity,” he told me. “I worry about the immediate and long-term consequences on the health, nutrition, and school performance of the youngest members of these families. And in most cases, we’re talking about citizens.” He continued, “If this starts happening at any kind of scale, we can’t close the gap in terms of the meals that this will remove from families.”
Immigrants themselves said that the message from the Trump White House was clear, with some adding that nothing was worth the risk of deportation. Marie Cruzado Jeanneau, who came to the United States from Peru as a child and is currently shielded from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, has an undocumented mother and younger siblings who are citizens. “We’re so scared to see my mother leave the house for work,” she told me. “We go out less. We drive less. She won’t go in a government building. She hides in the back of the car.” Her mother had stopped taking the kids into school, she added.
As social workers and service providers started to witness mothers and fathers pulling back from the safety net after Trump’s election and inauguration, they rushed to set up meetings with immigration-law experts. National organizations have struggled to advise local entities what to tell their clients. Another challenge: getting through to anyone in Washington. There is no secretary of agriculture or SNAP administrator in place, after all, nor is it clear who, if anyone, is managing anti-poverty efforts in the White House. “Who do we call?” said one nonprofit worker, who asked for anonymity to criticize the Trump administration openly. “You tell me who we call about this.”
The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.
As of now, there have been no policy changes altering safety-net eligibility standards. But social-justice organizations said that Trump’s racist attacks on Mexicans and broad anti-immigrant stance had resonated in communities of color and of immigrants. “The administration says that it’s going to go after the ‘bad dudes,’” said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro of the National Council of La Raza, the civil-rights organization. “You’re seeing all these cases of people—children, documented immigrants, Hispanic and Latino citizens—who are not ‘bad dudes’ caught in this dragnet. That’s adding to the climate of confusion and fear. This is not accidental.”
And there have been some signs that the White House might make changes to block mixed-status families’ access to the safety net. A draft executive order on public-charge rules leaked to Vox would make families more vulnerable to deportation if they used benefit programs. “The message is: If you’re sponsoring a family member, you better be prepared to take care of them,” said Audrey Singer of the Urban Institute, the Washington-based think tank. “Because we, the United States government, are not going to take care of them.” In that case, poverty, including deep poverty, could increase significantly.
Anti-poverty advocates expressed horror that the Trump administration might use poor citizen children as a wedge to get at their poor undocumented parents. “An American-citizen child could be driven into poverty because their mother or father doesn’t have a Social Security Number,” said Jackie Vimo of the National Immigration Law Center. “It’s bad policy. And it’s policy that is targeting U.S.-citizen children.”
For now, though, anti-poverty organizations stressed the importance of trying to calm the fears of and give more information to mixed-status families, to help keep kids healthy and to reduce the risks of poverty. Palomeque, herself an immigrant, said that having community members reach out, rather than government workers, seemed to help too. “They trust me,” she said. With that, she rushed off to greet a father with young daughters, and to push a Medicaid flyer into the hand of an older man walking with a cane.