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.”