Do Immigrant Children Have the Right to Eat?

This morning the Richmond Times-Dispatch offers a shot across the bow of anyone inclined to regard immigants as human beings worthy of basic respect. In an editorial titled” Four Hour Obscenity,” the newspaper criticizes a California program designed to increase immigrant enrollment in food stamp programs in which (under federal law) they are legally entitled to participate. A little research reveals that the real obscenity is not in California’s program, but in the sheer mean-spiritedness of the RTD’s stance.

Two background points are in order. First, it is estimated that less than 60% of persons in the United States eligible for Food Stamps actually claim such assistance. Given the negative impact of poor nutrition on child development as well as numerous other outcomes, there is a clear public interest in minimizing the number of Americans who are inadequately nourished. Consequently, the general idea of outreach programs to expand use of food stamps is a sound one that both advances the public interest and can help alleviate both short-term suffering and long-term negative consequences of hunger and malnutrition.

Given that federal law (under the Food Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002) specifically provides that adult aliens living in the U.S. for at least five years are eligible for federal food stamps and thatall children of legal immigrants living in the United States are eligible for support (regardless of length of residency), and given that enrollment rates for legal immigrants typically are lower than among U.S.-born residents, it makes perfect sense that there be outreach and education programs specifically targeted at immigrant populations–if we accept limiting hunger as an important public goal.

Second, administration of food stamps programs, including oversight of outreach programs, is left to the states, with the Department of Agriculture playing a supportive role. It’s unclear why a Virginia newspaper should be so agitated by another state’s decision on how to implement its own program. Apparently it’s not enough for the RTD’s editorialists to have influence in Richmond and Virginia politics; they want and policy and administrative decisions in the other 49 states to conform to their editorial stance as well.

Be that as it may, it would be wrong to suggest (as the RTD editorial might lead you to believe) that the California program is some wild deviation from the intent of federal law. In fact, the federal government itself publishes materials aimed at educating immigrants about food stamps similar in spirit and content to the California program.

But the real kicker is this: the RTD editorial fundamentally mispresents the California program by suggesting that one of its key aims is to help illegal aliens. As the Los Angeles Times explains, California does not in fact offer food stamp assistance to illegal alien adults, who are ineligible under federal law. Rather, California (like other states) permits illegal aliens to apply for food stamps on behalf of their American-born children who (under the 14th Amendment) are citizens and hence entitled to such assistance under federal law. In its eagerness to crack down on illegal immigrants, the RTD is willing to deny not just adults but also their American-born children access to nutrition.

There is no compelling argument for denying such residents benefits to which they are legally entitled–or for criticizing efforts to ensure such persons obtain the benefits for which they are eligible. The very desire to deny such benefits reflects, at best, a lack of humanity.

Couple that hard-heartedness with a fundamental factual error, and the result is a disgraceful piece of commentary.

The RTD’s real objection is not to the outreach programs in California, which in fact represent a quite intelligent application of federal law fully consonant with the legislative aim of minimizing hunger. Rather, what the RTD objects to is the idea that children growing up in the United States should not go hungry, regardless of where their parents come from.

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Published in: on October 27, 2006 at 7:16 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I totally read this headline as “Do Immigrants have the Right to Eat Children.”

    Oh well.

  2. Thad your analysis is devastating. You should send this one is as a letter to the editor.

  3. […] The Times-Dispatch has two excellent letters to the editor on Thursday calling the RTD to account for its misleading and mean-spirited editorial on food stamps and immigrants that was critiqued in this space a couple of weeks ago. […]

  4. Just a thought…why do American citizens only have a 5-7 year time clock(I should Know exact) for their children to beable to have assistance with food stamps, but illegal immigrants who have thier children in the US get to use this assistance untill their children reach the age of 18!????

  5. Jenna, anyone born in the United States is a citizen under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That’s not a matter of immigration policy, it’s a matter of our constitutional definition of who counts as a citizen.

  6. […] 1. Stop writing and printing intellectually lazy editorials and op-eds that are poorly researched and feature significant inaccuracies. (Case in point: this fall’s unsigned editorial about food stamps, which falsely implied that¬†California is trying to get illegal aliens signed up for food stamps.) […]


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