Like many immigrants, Carmen Cruz of New York is having trouble making ends meet.
“Everything is very expensive,” Cruz said, speaking in her native Spanish. “How does one buy or eat anything? Everything is so expensive.”
Cruz did not know that she was eligible for food stamps — $80 a month for herself or $200 or more for her family.
At a time when the economic downturn is hitting immigrant communities especially hard, food stamps are the first line of defense against hunger for low-income families. But advocates and government officials have long known that legal immigrants are missing out on government benefit programs because of language barriers or ignorance.
And if you are an illegal immigrant, there is a third, crippling barrier — fear of arrest and deportation, especially in an anti-immigrant political climate that has fueled record numbers of arrests and deportations .
Most illegal immigrants have no idea that a limited number of benefit programs don’t exclude them, said Betsabé Pabón, director of the Food Stamps Program at the nonprofit Sunnyside Community Services in the New York borough of Queens.
By law, illegal immigrants are ineligible for food stamps — unless there is at least one U.S. citizen in their household, which describes all U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
In many cases, illegal immigrants can also receive emergency medical treatment, short-term government disaster relief and immunization against communicable diseases. Their children can attend public schools.
States may provide other benefits, such as driver’s licenses and worker’s compensation, In Kansas, for example, illegal immigrants can get tuition breaks at state universities and colleges.
And yet, estimates are that several million illegal immigrants — more precise figures are impossible to calculate, because illegal immigrants typically live under the radar — actively shun such support, fearing that government agents will swoop in and whisk them away.
“People are afraid, and any mail that they receive at their homes, they double-check what it is,” said Ernesto Campos, who works with the Latino community for the Arlington County, Va., public schools.
Anti-immigrant pressure builds
Activists say the fear is especially acute now, in a climate of popular attitudes against illegal immigration that have led to widespread government raids on employers and mass arrests of illegal workers:
- In May, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials launched the largest immigration raid in the nation’s history, making nearly 400 arrests at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.
- In Florida, immigration authorities deported nearly 2,000 more illegal immigrants in the first six months of this year, 5,889, than they did in the same period last year, when they deported 3,942 people.
- Deportations for Washington, Oregon and Alaska were up by 40 percent over the same period, ICE said.
In Missouri, meanwhile, Gov. Matt Blunt recently signed tough legislation prohibiting Missouri business owners from hiring any illegal immigrants and requiring applicants for government benefits to prove U.S. citizenship.
Eduardo Crespi, director of Centro Latino de Salud, a Hispanic outreach group in Columbia, said the new law would drive as many as 65,000 illegal immigrants from Missouri into neighboring states.
The attitude was summarized by Eugene Delgaudio, who represents Sterling Park, Va., on the Loudoun Board of County Supervisors in suburban Washington. He said his community’s quality of life was at stake.
“This is a cesspool,” Delgaudio said. “People are coming from outside of this culture, and they are dumping their crap on the streets of our town, and our town is outraged that they don’t get with the program.”
Rep. Seth Hammett, speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, said heat was building on lawmakers to kick out any and all illegal immigrants.
“As long as Congress fails to act,” Hammett said, “this Legislature and others around the country are going to be under pressure from our constituents to take action.”
‘Immigrants are now afraid to report crimes’
Immigrants’ activists contend that the federal crackdown could lead to long-term problems for government authorities.
All sorts of local, state and federal programs are funded according to formulae based, in part, on population data: The fewer people in a given location, the less money is available.
Likewise, the same data govern apportionment of congressional seats. In districts with large immigrant populations, getting illegal immigrants to respond to census takers is crucial. Noting widespread fear of deportation among illegal immigrants, U.S. Census officials took the unusual step late last year of calling on authorities to end the crackdown in time for the 2010 census.
State and local officials have made similar calls.
In Virginia, for example, each student listed on a census card, legal or illegal, means about $2,300 for the child’s school system. The census is prohibited from asking about immigration status, but many illegal immigrants still refuse to take part.
“That is our concern, that people, because of what is going on in other jurisdictions, will feel we’re trying to gather information for some other purpose,” said Robert Smith, superintendent of the Arlington County schools.
Fear also hampers police, whom illegal immigrants particularly avoid, for the same reason.
“We’ve really seen an impact in public safety, because immigrants are now afraid to report crimes because of fear of detention or deportation,” said Caroline Keating-Guerra, an organizer for the Austin, Texas, Immigrant Rights Coalition. “That goes for witnesses or victims of crimes.”
Economic impact debated
Employers in low-paying industries join immigrants’ activists in saying the crackdown is short-sighted and insist that, if anything, illegal immigrants should get more help from the government.
Carol McDowell, president of McDowell Enterprises, a metal plating company in Elkhart, Ind., agreed. She said that immigrant workers were needed to keep the economy running and that the government should seek ways to help illegal immigrants survive and become naturalized.
“There are not enough Americans to do the jobs that are being created in America today by entrepreneurial companies,” McDowell said.
“The federal government has failed to provide a pathway to individuals who have been allowed to cross the borders to be legal so that they can fully contribute and give their tax dollars back to the nation,” she said.
And the government does collect plenty of tax money from illegal immigrants, said Tom Roach, an immigration attorney in Pasco, Wash.
“They pay sales taxes, federal income taxes, Social Security taxes, taken right out of their paycheck, sent right to the federal government,” Roach said. “Social Security is about to go broke, but thanks to the illegal aliens, there’s presently $345 billion in the Social Security fund, which is helping to keep it afloat.”
But proponents of crackdowns argue that those arguments are beside the point. Illegal immigrants, by definition, are criminals, they say, and should be brought to account.
“This is a rule-of-law issue,” said Jackie Walorski, a Republican member of the Indiana House of Representatives. “I cannot imagine that we’re going to ... say to the children in this generation right now that it’s OK to pick and choose what law you want to abide by.”
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