Legal U.S. immigrants may be scared to sign up for benefits

Effects of "zero tolerance"

The Trump administration's immigration crackdown may be leading to an unintended consequence: a drop-off in benefits enrollment among legal Hispanic immigrants. 

An immigration program called Secure Communities, which was rolled out during the Obama administration, is linked to a lower take-up of benefits such as food stamps and health care enrollment, according to a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The researchers found Hispanic households were particularly hard-hit, even those with legal immigration status. 

"We find evidence that our results may be driven by deportation fear rather than lack of benefit information or stigma," wrote Marcella Alsan of Stanford Medical School and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School in the paper.

Mixed-status households -- or families with citizens as well as legal and illegal immigrants -- suffered from lower take-up of benefits when Secure Communities was in effect, the researchers found. That could signal that legal Hispanic immigrants as well as Hispanic citizens may be worried that signing up for social services like food stamps could alert authorities about their family members without legal status. 

While the study examined data from 2008 to 2013, some social service groups have reported similar trends since the Trump administration started targeting immigrants. The Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, D.C. told the Tribune News Service that food stamp enrollment has fallen in half from a year ago. 

One legal immigrant, Maria Monestel, told the news service, "Everyone is scared. They think they don't have any rights." Fear of deportation is high, she added. 

The Secure Communities program ran from 2008 to 2014 and was administered by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). The program allowed ICE to check the immigration status of people arrested by local police, which resulted in more than 380,000 deportations. 

About one-third of Los Angeles County residents who were surveyed last year said they were worried that they, a family member or a friend would be deported. And four of five of those who expressed fear said they believed that enrolling in a government health, education or housing program would increase that risk.

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Without Secure Communities, sign-ups for insurance through the Affordable Care Act for eligible Hispanic households would have been 22 percent higher, Alsan and Yang found. 

The worry is that skipping out on food stamps and health insurance could lead to worse health outcomes for Hispanic families. The food-stamp program is widely considered one of the most successful anti-poverty programs in the U.S., helping stem long-term chronic health problems that can arise from hunger during childhood.

The researchers noted, "These results suggest that reductions in food-stamp usage among Hispanics in response to immigration enforcement could have long-run consequences for health and economic security."