"In the Capital of ""Ethnic"" Cuisine, are Immigrants Eating? "

They cook and serve customers from Chinatown to Little Egypt but recent data suggest that New York City's immigrant communities are at heightened risk of hunger and poverty.

Although the media is abuzz with the xenophobic narrative of "illegal" immigrants infiltrating US borders and disproportionately accessing US benefit programs, less attention has been paid to the institutional barriers that stifle legal permanent residents' (LPRs) economic security, including access to federal benefit programs. With fewer rights and privileges than US citizens, yet with greater legal protection than undocumented immigrants, there is both misinformation and confusion about the programs to which LPRs are entitled access. While there are several federally funded public benefit programs, this article will focus on the findings of a recent New York City study I co-authored that estimates the number of immigrants eligible and not participating in the Food Stamp Program, a federal entitlement program that provides low-income families with a subsidy for food purchases. In addition to these estimates, I highlight barriers that disproportionately affect immigrants, including the concern that immigrant participants are at risk of deportation. In particular, City advocates working with South Asian and Arab communities highlight both cultural bias and discrimination faced by their clients attempting to access public benefit resources - a reverberation of post-9/11 backlash.

The politics of immigrant eligibility and the Food Stamp Program

In recent history, US immigrants' eligibility has been a political hot potato for politicians. When the Federal Food Stamp Program was implemented in 1964, all immigrants had access to the program. This policy was reversed in 1996 during Gingrich's Congress with the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as "PRWORA" or the "Welfare Reform Act," which barred almost all legal immigrants from access to food stamps. With the passage of PRWORA, only those legal permanent residents who could be credited with 40 qualifying work quarters in the Social Security system, and certain limited immigrant categories were considered eligible for participation in the program. The eligibility of refugees, asylees and Amerasians was limited to five years from their date of entry.

Between 1998 and 2002, Congress restored food stamp eligibility to several immigrant categories. Under current regulations, immigrants with disabilities and children under the age of 18 have ready access to the program. Otherwise, an immigrant must be a "legal permanent resident" for at least five years in order to access food stamps. Yet, it is an immigrant's initial arrival and pre-LPR transition that are wrought with the greatest financial pressures. Legislative changes under the Bush administration also eliminated any time limits placed on food stamp eligibility for refugees, asylees and trafficking victims - status categories that are difficult to obtain. Despite these legal restorations, significant confusion persists about which categories of immigrants qualify for the program. This has a particularly detrimental impact on immigrant communities in New York City.

Challenges to Immigrants in New York City

While New York City is famous for its demographic complexity, documented immigrants face significant economic obstacles. The Department of City Planning (DCP) reports that between 1965 and 2000, the City's foreign-born population nearly doubled, from 1.44 million to 2.87 million. Today, there are approximately 1.5 million legal permanent residents in New York City and approximately 300,000 refugees. While the highest concentration of the foreign-born are from the Dominican Republic, there are significant populations from China, Jamaica, Guyana and the former Soviet Union.

Many of New York City's immigrant groups report high poverty rates. Mexicans (32%), Dominicans and Bangladeshis (31%), Hondurans (28%) and Pakistanis (26%) all report much higher rates of poverty than the city's average of approximately 20%. The different rates of poverty among immigrant groups is explained by several factors, including an individual's socio-economic background in their country of origin, systems of support upon arrival, and ability to navigate US systems such as the job market.

At the same time, labor force participation among immigrants in New York City is high. The DCP reports that in 2000, New York City's immigrant males had a higher labor force participation rate (67%) than their native-born counterparts (63%). Among immigrants, three Asian groups had the highest rates of labor force participation: Indians (76%), Bangladeshis and Filipinos (both with 74%). At the same time, immigrant females had a labor force participation rate of approximately 52%. Despite the common folklore that those who work will not go hungry, labor force participation does not necessarily lead to economic security. While Bangladeshis are among the highest groups represented in labor force participation within the city, they also have one of the highest rates of poverty.

Because of these pressures, "food insecurity," or the lack of access to the quantity of food necessary to fully meet basic needs at all times due to low financial resources, is increasingly widespread among immigrants. A survey conducted by the Urban Institute reports that approximately one-third of all low-income immigrant families in New York City face some risk of food insecurity. Adding to low-income immigrant households' risk of food insecurity are high housing costs. In a recent survey almost one-fifth of low-income immigrants in New York City reported problems paying their rent, mortgage or utilities, affecting their ability to purchase food. In contrast, only about 8% of low-income citizen families in New York City reported similar problems meeting rent and housing costs. As one City advocate working with the Chinese community succinctly put it, "in New York people have to make sacrifices, deciding between having a place to live or to eat."

In addition to skimping on meals and other necessities such as clothing and child care costs, advocates report that many families make the strategic decision to "double up" in housing units, with two or three families sharing one- or two-bedroom apartments. An advocate working in Washington Heights explains, "To afford rent, there are four-person families who share one room in apartments with other families in communities throughout this section of Manhattan." Since such housing arrangements are illegal, families have a difficult time obtaining proof of rent payments required to receive public benefits. These types of living configurations also create unsafe or compromising conditions for immigrant families.

Disabled, elderly and single-parent households within immigrant communities are the hardest hit by high housing costs and food insecurity. Because many of these households are reliant on fixed incomes, it is nearly impossible for them to keep pace with the rapidly rising household costs in New York City. An advocate who works with Central and Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn states:

The primary concern for our clients is housing. Most of our clients are elderly people, many of whom are over 60-years-old. Our organization conducted a survey of our clients and community members. Out of over 1,000 clients: over 55% reported that 75% to 100% of their monthly income goes into rent and utilities. This forces the elderly to spend less money on food and decreases the quality of food. Many [of our clients] receive food stamps to offset these costs. It is a necessity for them to live.

For many households in New York City, participation in the Food Stamp Program offsets high housing and rent costs, improving food security and health.

Included with this article are maps highlighting those neighborhoods and zip codes with the highest concentration of immigrants eligible and not participating in the Food Stamp Program. In addition, the maps indicate our estimates of the rate of foreign-born among the total number of people living 130% or below the federal poverty line. In New York City, our estimates suggest that there are approximately 180,255 eligible, non-participating immigrants. The highest concentrations of eligible immigrants are found in Brooklyn and Queens. The western section of Queens has the greatest number of eligible non-participating immigrants with 26,741. Our study estimates that the city foregoes $162 million due to a lack of immigrant participation.

See more maps, detailing a borough-by-borough analysis.

While the maps illustrate what one might already suspect - immigrants are disproportionately represented among the poor - they also illustrate concentrated immigrant, urban poverty in particular sections of each of the boroughs. These cantons highlight those areas in need of City government outreach efforts as well as infrastructure and economic development.

Barriers to Immigrant Access

Although, the New York City and borough estimates provide some insight into the number of immigrants who may be eligible and not participating in the Food Stamp Program, they do not explain why immigrants who are eligible to receive assistance do not participate in the program.

In addition to some of the more commonly discussed barriers that affect immigrants, such as language inaccessibility and hefty documentation requirements that are difficult for all low-income households to meet, immigrant advocates cite concerns that program participation may make participants eligible for deportation or hinder their ability to gain US citizenship. Despite government issuances that Food Stamp Program participation will not affect a qualified immigrant's citizenship status or ability to stay in the United States, a report by the Urban Institute suggests that, "many immigrants believe, for instance, that getting benefits might endanger their immigration status or prevent them from getting green cards, reentering the country, or becoming citizens. Further, many families are confused by the complex changes in immigration and welfare law that occurred in 1996, and may have believed that all immigrants were disqualified." In addition, the National Conference of State Legislatures argues that, "increased reporting requirements, which require a state agency to report to immigration authorities their knowledge of an immigrant that is unlawfully in the United States, cause immigrants to fear that use of public benefits will negatively affect their immigration status or that of a family member."

Since 9/11, immigrant rights advocate stress a heightened fear of government tracking and deportation among all immigrant groups; however, interviews with organizations working with the Arab and South Asian community highlighted that these communities encounter unique discrimination and cultural bias. Although Pakistanis and Bangladeshis report some of the highest rates of poverty in New York City, one advocate working in both of these communities explains that these groups are hesitant to participate in the Food Stamp Program because of particularly negative experiences with government caseworkers. One advocate reiterates that this discrimination is a real barrier for many in the Arab and Middle Eastern communities:

This [fear] has increased for us since 9/11 as people have an even greater concern about participating in government programs and accessing services, even if they really need them...In particular, I have seen an increase fear from women who wear hijab [cover their hair]; they refuse to go to the HRA office...In my experience, many families who may really need these services choose not to access them because of uncomfortable experiences with [caseworkers].

Ways to Move Forward

New York City activists and advocates are well positioned to work with and within immigrant communities to improve immigrants' access to the Federal Food Stamp Program and overall food security. A recent community forum organized by the New York City non-profit FoodChange brought together immigrant rights and anti-poverty advocates to discuss how best to move forward. Some of these policy based recommendations included: New York City advocates leading the national charge to eliminate immigrant eligibility restrictions and implementing outreach initiatives to improve immigrant access, simplifying what is now a very long application process and eliminating a current finger-printing requirement that affects all Food Stamp applicants.

Although I have focused on New York City, these issues are increasingly relevant to communities throughout the country. Working towards food and economic security for immigrants is one way to combat the country's anti-immigrant and xenophobic tilt.


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