While the nation's attention has been focused on the separation of children from their parents at the US-Mexico border, there’s another problem in Baltimore that could lead to the same fate.
Undocumented immigrants are having a hard time getting food assistance benefits for their US-born children. And the parents are afraid to fight back for fear of deportation and potentially separation from their children.
Take, for example, the cases of Carla and Veronica—not their real names. They have been living in the US for 16 years as undocumented immigrants from Mexico and between them they have seven US-born children, ages six to 14.
Veronica, Carla and their spouses barely scratch out a living at less than minimum wage jobs. Carla says they may bring in $300 to $400 a week per family.
“And that doesn’t cover rent, groceries, clothes, that stuff,” says Carla.
Under those conditions, their children are eligible for the federal government’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs, or SNAP benefits. Or at least they should be.
Veronica applied for the program in 2014 and again last October. Carla applied once in 2009 and again in late 2015.
“I was unemployed and I only had one part-time job, so I went to seek help,” says Carla.
But the Baltimore Department of Social Services, the agency that distributes SNAP benefits, turned them down because they couldn’t provide proof of income.
Workers at the agency’s Dunbar-Orangeville office in East Baltimore demanded social security cards or tax ID numbers as well as pay stubs.
DSS policy says applicants can provide “a paystub or another document that contains a social security number,” and notes they are required to verify the information provided.
That angered Carla.
"Do you want me to prostitute myself in order to pay for food for my kids?” says Carla. “It hurt me a lot. I was so discouraged, I didn’t want to return.”
The women say they were asked to get their pay stubs signed by their bosses, but feared their bosses would fire them if they asked.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Carla says, there was no one at the office to help them with their rudimentary English.
“It makes me sad because of people at the social security office that deny you because they see you as Hispanic and don’t offer you any help,” says Carla. “And I don’t know English or what rights of my children have.”
As undocumented immigrants, they say they are afraid to return to the DSS office to try a third time.
“I’m afraid, we all are afraid that if we go looking for food benefits, they will look up our address and deport us,” says Carla.
Cornelia Bright-Gordon, the chief attorney with Maryland Legal Aid’s administrative law department, says Carla and Veronica aren’t the only ones with the same problem. She says she’s noticed an increase in denials and appeals over the last year, but won’t quantify it.
“I can give you my opinion that the problem is big coming from one DSS office in the city,” says Bright-Gordon.
She says the appeals have been coming from the Dunbar Orangeville office, but she can’t pinpoint the reasons.
“An agency’s decision to deny benefits is as varied as what your imagination could come up with,” says Bright-Gordon.
Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, says it’s difficult to get that sort of data by race or immigration status.
“People don’t voluntarily give it,” says Wilson. “People don’t want to identify in a lot of ways of even getting the benefits.”
Nationwide, about 3.9 million citizen children living with noncitizen parents received food stamps in 2015, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
The Department of Social Services turned down interview requests for this report, but acknowledged in a letter that “there may be a perception of unequal treatment of Spanish-speaking customers in our Dunbar-Orangeville family investment center.”
The letter also says the department takes “all concerns seriously and welcomes the opportunity for this important dialogue.”
The department also provided a copy of a letter it received last March from Maryland Legal Aid alleging the Dunbar-Orangeville office was improperly requiring non-citizen parents to present social security numbers in order to process SNAP applications for their eligible children.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General Anne Ware responded to Maryland Legal Aid saying DSS investigated the claim and found that the office was complying with federal guidelines and were not requesting social security numbers.
Flor Giusti, a social worker in East Baltimore who helps mothers like Carla and Veronica with their SNAP applications, says denying US-citizen children and their families benefits is discriminatory.
“And it is trying to portray immigrants as people who are criminals, who try to take advantage, who are milking the system,” says Giusti.
Giusti, who has been helping families apply for benefits for 30 years, says she has recently seen an uptick in families being denied from the Dunbar Orangeville DSS office. She says prior to 2016, 50 to 60 families a year would be denied benefits. Now, now hundreds of families with citizen children have been denied.
She says the office has been double checking parents’ income not only with the pay stubs, but also requiring parents to provide their social security card or the tax ID number.
“And that is the DSS administrator requesting something they should not be requesting,” says Giusti.
Giusti says eligibility for SNAP benefits should be the same and clear for everyone applying.
“What I would like to see is a clear message on what are the requirements and enforcing the existing requirements,” says Giusti.
Giusti concedes that Baltimore City Schools provides meals for all students, but points out that doesn’t do much good on weekends or during summer breaks.
“It matters because these are US-born children,” says Giusti. “That it is really putting their health and well-being at risk because they are not getting the support to basically eat.”
Meanwhile, Carla and Veronica say they both have taken on more hours a week of work to make up for the lack of food assistance.
“I found a job working double shifts, which meant I couldn’t take care of my kids as much,” says Giusti. “I felt bad, but I had to put food on the table for my kids.”
While DSS says they are they are taking steps to remove barriers to services, Carla says she’d like to see more Spanish-speaking personnel.