One Horrific Accident from a Nightmare

This past year, in addition to paying close attention to governmental proposals affecting the social safety net, I have also followed proposals concerning legal and undocumented immigrants.  For now, most of the proposals concerning the social safety net have not been enacted.  Unfortunately, the same can not be said for proposals affecting the statue of libertyimmigrant population, and although these policies are targeted at undocumented immigrants, the ripples of fear they have caused are moving through the qualified immigrant population as well.

Before I retell the narrative I have chosen this month I want to restate the regulations regarding immigrants and their ability to qualify for social safety net programs.  Most of these regulations have been firmly in place since the late 1990s, but some date back to the inception of the program.  Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal governmental assistance, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), not now, not ever.   Any children of undocumented immigrants who have been born in the United States, and are therefore US citizens, are, however, eligible for this assistance.  Just the children are eligible and the amount of assistance the household receives is only commensurate to the number of eligible children.  For instance if you have a family of 5: two undocumented parents, two undocumented children, and one child born in the U.S., the household would only receive SNAP benefits for one, not five, members of the household.  With the 1996 passage of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), and subsequent legislation passed in 1998 and 2002, documented immigrants are eligible to receive benefits, but only after they have resided legally in the U.S. for 5 years.  There are some some exceptions to the 5 year waiting period for protected classes of documented immigrants, like refugees.  Furthermore, for all who receive assistance from TANF, whether documented immigrant or U.S. citizen, there is a lifetime limit of no more than 60 months of benefits, but that lifetime limit can vary from state to state with some states having a maximum 24 month lifetime limit on benefits.  In all states TANF recipients must get a job within 24 months of getting benefits to avoid reduction or termination of benefits.  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does not have a lifetime limit for benefits, except for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (AWBADS).

My point in explaining these rules is to convey that immigrants can not come to the United States and live off our government, especially those who come illegally, since they are ineligible to receive any assistance at all.  Even under the best of circumstances, immigrants must reside legally in the U.S. for 5 years to be eligible for any public assistance.  I do not intend to argue the pros and cons of immigrants coming to the United States, legally or otherwise, merely to discuss the reality for those who are currently here, living and working in our communities.  For undocumented immigrants, like the subjects of the following narrative, this is the reality they have been facing forstrawberry pickers years, maybe even decades.

The family whose story  I am going to tell consists of 2 undocumented immigrant parents and their children living in my greater community.  I did not meet this family personally, but a very trustworthy friend did and conveyed their circumstances to me.  While the parents are undocumented, all of the children were born in the United States, and are therefore American citizens.  The oldest child is 17, so that means this couple has been residing in the United States for at least 17 years, almost 2 decades, making ends meet without receiving public assistance, while contributing to our local economy.  They were able to do this because the father worked full-time and supplemented his take home pay by doing additional farm work.  The mother stayed home raising the children.  The kids are good students, and the 17 year old approached senior year with visions of attending college.

For almost 2 decades this arrangement worked for this family, until one day the father was killed in a horrific accident, witnessed by his children.  And just like that their life turned into a horrible nightmare.  Within a week of losing their husband and father, this family lost their housing.  The 17 year old, who had aspirations of attending college, now faced the potential of having to drop out of school and start working.  The mother did not know where to turn.  She feared going to any agency for help in securing the benefits for which her children were eligible due to their status as U.S. citizens.  She worried about drawing attention to her undocumented status, triggering her removal from her children who had just lost a parent, and her likely deportation.  When I decided I was going to write about this family, I went back to my friend to ask what had happened to them.  Sadly, I can not report any update.  My friend, unable to help them personally, referred them on to an agency better equipped to help.  I can only hope they were able to find some assistance.

wildfireUnfortunately, the heartbreaking story of this family is not an isolated event.  Last fall fires burned out of control in large areas of Sonoma and Napa counties in California, including business and residential areas in the city of Santa Rosa.  The countryside surrounding Santa Rosa is lovely wine country, but Santa Rosa itself is a large city, with tens of thousands of residents.  A wildfire in the vineyards on hills would harm the economy, but a wildfire within the city of Santa Rosa would cause devastation for thousands.  At the time of the fires, I didn’t stop to think who would suffer the most as a result of these fires, or that vastly different levels of suffering would even be experienced.  On reflection, I realize the immigrant population will experience a greater loss as a result of these fires.  Santa Rosa, like most California cities and towns, has a large immigrant population, both documented and undocumented.  These immigrants, who lost everything in these fires, can only receive governmental assistance if they meet the previously explained requirements.  Additionally, FEMA assistance, which is vital to help those experiencing a disaster put their lives back together, is only available for U. S. citizens, non-citizen nationals (Somoans), and qualified aliens (those living legally in the U.S. for at least 5 years) .  For the others, there will be no money for them to rebuild their lives after this disaster.

The story of this local immigrant family haunts me as does reading about the hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant victims of the wildfires in Santa Rosa who do not qualify for public assistance.  Prior to these horrific events, these households were surviving without assistance from the federal government.  Now, ineligible for help, what are they to do?  Immigrants, qualified and undocumented, live in almost every community in our country.  They mostly work in low paying, back breaking or otherwise unpleasant jobs that most American employers are unable fill using U.S. citizens.  They put money back into those local economies and pay taxes.  In return, during a time of need, they receive little to nothing.  What have we as a society gained from this?  And equally important, what have we lost?


2 thoughts on “One Horrific Accident from a Nightmare

  1. Georgeanna February 2, 2018 / 3:26 PM

    Hi Jen,

    I enjoy reading about your journey on helping those with food insecurity. It is a very noble and worthy venture and one in which I would one day like to be more intimately involved in. However, on the topic of illegal immigration, we disagree. Regarding the above post, I had a few thoughts/comments for you to consider.

    You cite many benefits undocumented immigrants cannot receive. However, they can receive WIC, emergency Medicaid, and aid from local churches, food banks, and other community outreach programs. One can argue that these are clearly not enough assistance to help a family in dire need, but remember that these people are breaking the laws of our country. It does not seem heartless to say we don’t give aid and government funding to criminals. “Criminal” seems like a tough word to use for people who are just trying to raise a family and get by like the rest of us, but illegally entering and remaining in a country is a crime and by definition, undocumented immigrants are criminals.

    I am sorry for the tragedy the family you cite is experiencing due to the loss of their father and my heart breaks for the children, but this tragedy happens to citizens and is equally as sad then. Clearly, these parents have been in the US for at least 17 years. Why haven’t they bothered to obtain legal status? You don’t just become a citizen because you live somewhere for a long time – it’s not how the law works and a country must have laws. One doesn’t have to like all the laws, but if you want to stay there, you have to follow them or you put yourself at risk for the punishment that comes from breaking them. They have been breaking the law for at least 17 years. I know many legal immigrants who obtained citizenship in much less than 17 years.

    I’m sorry to hear that the son may have to put his aspirations of attending college on hold, but sadly, the situation you describe is not uncommon or unique. When the breadwinner in any family dies, the family struggles and a heavy burden befalls the remaining parent and oldest child. I had a friend in high school whose grades were poor because his father died when he was young and he worked after school to support his mother and sister. College wasn’t an option for him. He was a super hard worker, though, and today, he has a good job and a family of his own. His story has a happy ending. I mention this because there is still much hope for the children of the family in your story and I pray their story has a happy ending.

    As your blog has shown, there are US citizens who are hungry every day. You have described local families who are hungry, homeless that even the food banks struggle to feed because they have no can openers or ways to safely cook or keep perishable food and pointed out struggles parents have in feeding their children when they are no longer able to receive government subsidized lunches at schools. Our church, along with many local churches, is part of a program called Family Promise, that houses homeless families in our area. It was an eyeopener to me to learn about just how much need there is in our community.

    Our country has elderly, to whom we owe much of our abundance today, struggling to get by on very little income, veterans, some physically and/or mentally disabled and some homeless, who served to protect us, children, our future, in a broken foster care system and failing schools and many others worthy of government assistance. We cannot adequately serve the needs of everyone with the current tax revenue and increasing taxes is not an option as the middle class is already struggling to support their own families.

    In closing, you make the point at the end of this article that the federal government is not doing enough to help undocumented immigrant families. I wanted to present a different view and explain why someone (like me) supports the current system which does not provide government funding for undocumented immigrants as such a system would take aid away from our own needy citizens. Private people, like you and I, and organizations, such as churches, are free to help whomever they wish, including law breakers, but government aid should be reserved for law abiding citizens in need.

    Thanks for listening 🙂


    • Jenifer February 5, 2018 / 2:35 PM


      Thank you for reading my posts, and more importantly, for taking the time to offer your thoughts on the subject. To take any steps toward solving problems as large and complex as poverty and food insecurity, everyone needs to come to the table and participate in the discussion. We have shared several discussions about food insecurity and I know you have the same desire as me to help those who are food insecure. In my last blog, however, I did not give my opinions on undocumented immigrants. My intent was not to write a post condoning undocumented immigrants, and I specifically stated that I was not going to argue the pros and cons of the topic. Nor am I going to do that in my response, except to state that our immigration policy is very broken. Maybe someday our elected officials will have the courage to take up meaningful immigration reform, and will start by realistically examining the current state of affairs and talking to all parties involved, in order to craft a path forward which will bring the greatest good for the United States.

      My intent with my post was to share a story of a family who went from stability and self-sufficiency to teetering on the edge of poverty and food insecurity in the blink of an eye. Because the parents were undocumented immigrants, I was able to include facts that dispel the myth that immigrants, legal or otherwise, come to this country just to receive benefits and live off the government. As to your points that undocumented immigrants can receive WIC and emergency Medicaid, these are true, sort of. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is for pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and children up to the age of 5. Those who are eligible for this program are the U. S. citizen children of these undocumented immigrants, of course the mothers of these infants are also receiving the benefits of this wonderful program which provides vouchers for very specific foods aimed at providing good nutrition for pregnant/nursing mothers and children under the age of five. Undocumented immigrants can also receive the benefit of emergency Medicaid. I did a little research into this benefit and found that it is not what it initially sounded like to me, free health insurance, but rather payments directly to hospitals to mostly cover the cost of childbirth and other very limited emergency care. It does not provide prenatal or postnatal care for the mother or child. Furthermore, emergency Medicaid comprises less than 1% of Medicaid spending and that figure has remained relatively steady over the past several years. Your last point, that undocumented immigrants can receive benefits from church and community groups is true, depending on what that charity decides. One of the articles I read discussing the fires in Sonoma county mentioned the UndocuFund for Fire Relief, which has been set up to assist undocumented immigrants who sustained losses due to the wildfires. My argument with relying heavily on charity to assist those who are food insecure, and this argument goes for documented and undocumented immigrants or U. S. citizens, is that it is always inadequate, subjective and unreliable. But it is sometimes the only option available, and then it is better than nothing.

      I am sorry that you felt that I was advocating that undocumented immigrants should get benefits at the expense of others in the U.S., like the elderly, veterans and homeless. I think it is appalling that the United States has the level of poverty and suffering we do and my aim is to keep advocating for those in poverty and experiencing food insecurity regardless of who they are. I was merely sharing a story of a family in need, and I will continue to share stories of others in need. Sometimes they will be about seniors, sometimes homeless, sometimes families, sometimes individuals. The common thread that will run through all of these stories is that these people, despite all their efforts, find themselves in need. I am just trying to open a small window onto the world of those in poverty like the people I encounter volunteering in the food pantry. When possible I will use an element of the story to illustrate a point or dispel a myth.

      Finally, I went back and re-read my last paragraph. I suppose I can see where one might infer I was suggesting the government needed to do more to help undocumented immigrants, but I was not. What I was trying to do was show the reality of the situation and ask questions that might encourage someone to think about the situation. I don’t have the answers. That is why I call my blog a journey. I myself hadn’t connected all the dots in the lives of undocumented immigrants and the story of this family made a big impact on me. You repeatedly refer to undocumented immigrants as criminals, and I get why you do, but I don’t think I will ever be able to refer to someone who is willing risk everything to come to an unknown place, prepared to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their family, a criminal. Furthermore, I think we lose something as a society if we fail to see what they already have contributed to our country and what they might additionally contribute. But that’s just me.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s