House Bids To Revive Food Benefit For Legal Migrants

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — As the state's new policy of turning some away from shelter has left migrant families struggling and hungry as the days get colder, the House wants to revive a nutrition benefit for newly-arrived immigrants.

The House last week quietly tacked into a spending bill a provision to reinstate a policy that Massachusetts repealed over two decades ago to offer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to immigrants who are in the country legally, but who are not citizens.

But while that bill -- which also includes $250 million for the shelter system that has strained under an influx of new immigrants -- winds its way through the legislative process, families have begun to be turned away from the overflowing shelter system.

Those families have gone to community groups for support, where they take refuge from the cold during the day and seek out churches to sleep in at night, according to a community organizer.

Last Thursday, Massachusetts' Emergency Assistance shelter system hit the maximum capacity cap that Gov. Maura Healey imposed, with over 7,500 families enrolled. Starting Friday, shelters began placing families on a waiting list to get into the EA system.

Meanwhile, temperatures have begun to dip below freezing at night.

Norieliz DeJesus, policy and organizing director at Chelsea-based La Colaborativa community group, said her organization has been helping some of the first families who have been placed on a waiting list to get into shelter.

"We have families with their entire life packed up in trash bags or suitcases just laying around and sleeping," DeJesus said.

La Colaborativa has been coordinating with local churches for families to sleep in at night, she said.

"They've been kind enough to house some of the families, but there's not always room for all, and they can basically only do it overnight. So we can expect that family right back at our office in the morning. Our staff are receiving phone calls at 6 a.m. from churches, giving them a heads up as families are headed our way. We don't even open until 10, but with the cold weather we've been taking them in ... Our staff do not even have time to eat," DeJesus said.

Late Monday afternoon, United Way of Massachusetts Bay announced it launched an online application for a "SafetyNetShelter" grant program alongside the administration to provide emergency overnight congregate shelter to extremely low-income families with children, and pregnant people who have an urgent and immediate need for emergency shelter.

The grant program, which went live on Monday, will provide funding to community-based organizations that are supporting overflow options for the EA system, with short-term stays. The program has $5 million in federal funds to support the grants.

"Our staff are so overwhelmed with appointments and back-to-back walk-ins that they are just really overworked, you know? And they're in a lot of pain. Listening to these cases -- it's pretty heartbreaking," DeJesus said.

She was enthusiastic about the policy added to the House bill to expand nutritional benefits to more immigrant families.

La Colaborativa runs a food pantry every week where they feed over 7,000 people, DeJesus said. Recently, an ambulance had to come for an individual who passed out from hunger while waiting in line.

The House approved additional funding for shelter system last Wednesday, also voting to adopt an amendment filed by Rep. Jessica Giannino to expand SNAP benefits to families affected by the shelter shortage, as well as other immigrants.

The Giannino amendment is similar to the "Feeding Our Neighbors" bill (H 135 / S 76), which would expand food benefits for low-income, legally present immigrants who are excluded under federal rules.

Essentially, it would authorize a larger group of immigrants to receive state-funded SNAP benefits for the remainder of the fiscal year.

There's a "complicated patchwork" of rules about which immigrants can access federal benefits, said Massachusetts Law Reform Institute attorney Pat Baker.

Ineligible immigrants include those with lawful permanent resident or parole status with less than five years of that status, some applicants for asylum, immigrants granted temporary protected status and others who are lawfully present and have work authorizations but are not considered "qualified" for benefits.

This includes many of the new immigrants coming into Massachusetts from South America, Baker said, who are here with permission from the federal government.

In addition, Ukrainian refugees' immigration status is being changed on the federal level to "temporary protected status," meaning they will go from qualifying for benefits to no longer being able to access SNAP.

In Massachusetts, the maximum SNAP payment for one person is $291 per month, $535 for two people, and $766 for a family of three, according to MLRI.

"Now as the EA system has paused -- I'll put it that way -- the state is referring families to [the Department of Transitional Assistance] for any benefits they can get. But there are immigrants who are here who have legal status, and DTA has nothing to offer them," Baker said.

Giannino's amendment would authorize humanitarian parolees or any other immigrant legally in the U.S. who meets the income requirements to access SNAP. The representative did not return requests for comment. 

It's tied to a $6 million line item, which Baker said would last through the end of the fiscal year.

Paul Craney, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said the House-approved policy would draw more immigrants to the state.

"This seems to be kind of a backdoor attempt to offer, for lack of a better word, welfare benefits to people that are not U.S. citizens," Craney said. "They're giving the green light to use state taxpayer money for these benefits for people that are not U.S. citizens here. And I think that's a huge policy shift ... We're becoming a magnet for people intentionally coming here."

The number of people in the EA shelter system has more than doubled since this time last year, with over half of the new entrants coming from other countries.

Massachusetts used to be one of six states that offered SNAP and other state benefits to all legal immigrants who met the income requirements, Baker said. The state halted that policy after five years in 2002, she said. The other five states still offer those benefits.

"Immigrants are often essential workers, and have very low-paying jobs. Those SNAP benefits are what helps keep them from standing in food pantry lines," Baker said.

Craney said he worried that the $6 million earmarked for the program "is not going to be enough."

"They're going to have to come back and ask for more. That's not fair to the taxpayers here," he said. "I think taxpayers in Massachusetts generally want to be helpful. It's when you don't deal with the underlying problem and you expect them to pay for it, that's when people get irritated. And that's exactly what the Legislature is doing."

The version of the supplemental budget that the Senate is poised to debate Tuesday does not include the SNAP expansion policy, but the bill is subject to amendment during floor deliberations.

"These are some serious, serious challenges that our families are facing," DeJesus said. "And something like this amendment could be huge for the fact that pantries don't have the capacity to feed thousands and thousands. We see so many cases of malnutrition. It's just too much."

Written by Sam Drysdale/SHNS

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