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 immigrant 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 for 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.
Unfortunately, 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?