Houston Food Bank strongly opposes the proposed public charge rule that would make it difficult for immigrant families and children to access life-sustaining health and human service programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We oppose punishing immigrant individuals and families who are in the process of becoming citizens for trying to access food. We call on our community members to take action and submit a comment to the Federal Register before the proposed changes become policy.

On October 10, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a proposed “public charge” rule in the Federal Register. Proposed changes to the public charge rule could put immigrants applying to become U.S. citizens at risk of being denied a green card and permanent residency if they utilize public programs like SNAP or Medicaid. DHS is currently requesting public comments on the rule now through December 10, 2018 before making final determinations on the policy.

In a city like Houston, the impact of such a policy could be devastating. Enrollment in SNAP is already low in Houston; approximately one out of five Houstonians are eligible but not enrolled, and those numbers are at risk of sinking even lower. The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) states that it is “highly likely that the families who are most likely to drop out of programs that they are currently benefiting from are those who have at least one non-citizen family member.” According to HILSC, there are 569,000 children under the age of 18 in the Houston area who have a non-citizen parent.

Ensnaring SNAP in immigration policy means some school age children will no longer access SNAP-funded school nutrition programs and other benefits, leaving them hungry in classes all day, leading to poor health and education outcomes. In 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported that Houston Independent School District (HISD) was the state’s largest school district serving more than 11,000 immigrant students who have been in the country for three years or less—of that group 3,500 immigrant students were in their first year at a school in America.

If these changes are implemented, some of our most vulnerable children will suffer from hunger. If not because of punitive immigration policy then they will go hungry from the byproducts of such a policy. Fear and confusion in the community will further fuel distrust of public programs by those in need, causing immigrant families to opt out of all public programs—necessary health, housing, and food related benefits— just to feel safe.

For decades, immigrant families have accessed health and nutrition benefits without need for concern that SNAP enrollment would have a negative effect on their immigration status. Under DHS’s proposed public charge rule, the list of programs to be considered for a public charge determination would be expanded, causing immigrant families applying for citizenship to face unimaginable choices between their family’s health or their ability to stay together. The list of benefits under consideration to be added to the “public charge” determination includes:

  • Non-emergency Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy
  • Housing assistance, such as public housing or Section 8 housing vouchers and rental assistance.

The rule would also adopt a new threshold for households that hope to overcome a public charge test. Changes require the immigrant, not just the sponsor, to earn at least 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level – and weighing as “heavily positive” a household income of 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. Put simply, to avoid scrutiny under the public charge test, a family of four would need to earn nearly $63,000 annually—a tall order for many working families in Texas. HILSC reports that if this test were applied to U.S citizens, up to one out of every three would fail.

“These proposed changes have already begun to generate fear that may dissuade our region’s diverse immigrant communities, whether they are impacted by the rule or not, from seeking food assistance of any kind,” said Brian Greene, President and CEO of Houston Food Bank. “This is the opposite of why SNAP, our agency, and our network of 1,500 community partners exists.”

But this is currently a proposal. The rules governing public charge in the U.S. have not yet changed—the clock is ticking to stop these changes. Public comment period runs now through December 10, 2018. We urge every member of our community to submit a comment in opposition to this proposed rule. Here are links to the Federal Register posting and the comment portal or visit frac.org/publiccharge to learn more and submit a comment.

Houston Food Bank, along with Feeding Texas, Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, and their numerous partners stand united in opposition to the proposed public charge rule.

No one should have to choose between family or food.