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Food stamp use declines amid improving economy, Trump immigration policies

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A two-year decline in the number of people receiving food stamps in Sonoma County has accelerated sharply over the past year, a trend that reflects both an improving local economy and growing fears over the Trump administration’s threatened crackdown on undocumented immigrants, experts say.

Deportation fears in the local immigrant community are prompting a growing number of immigrant families to withdraw from a state program that subsidizes food for their American-born children, according to county officials and nonprofit managers that work with people living in poverty.

More than 5,200 Sonoma County residents have left the state’s CalFresh program since mid 2015, according to data from the county Department of Human Services. Local enrollment in the federally funded program, which provides monthly food benefits to legal residents of the United States with low incomes, peaked in June 2015 at 36,302 people and dropped over the next 20 months to 31,056 people by February, the most recent county data shows.

“Certainly the information that we’re hearing from our partners ... would lend oneself to believe that there are people who are either not following through in continuing their benefits, or they’re not coming in at all,” said Kim Seamans, director of Sonoma County’s Economic Assistance Division.

Economic expansion is partly behind the decline in food stamp recipients, Seamans said. The local economy added 3,200 jobs during the corresponding 20-month period while the number of unemployed job-seekers dropped by 2,000 people, according to the state Employment Development Department.

But the economic upswing is not the sole factor responsible for the reduction in food stamp recipients, said Juan Torres, who manages the food access program at Catholic Charities. Since October, the Santa Rosa nonprofit has seen a 36 percent drop in the number of applications its clients have submitted for CalFresh benefits, Torres said.

Torres said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of otherwise eligible households that are opting out of benefits, worried about being deemed “public charges” — a term that refers to people who depend upon the government for subsistence. The concern is common among members of the local immigrant community, even those who are in the United States legally and have permanent resident status, Torres said.

“(Clients) are afraid (that designation) would have an impact when they apply for citizenship, or try to sponsor a family member,” he said.

The shift in attitude happened after Election Day, when Donald Trump was elected president.

“We started getting calls from clients checking in, (asking) how’s this going to change their situation,” he said. “A lot of them were worried about being classified as a public charge.”

Seamans said that fear is groundless. Information the county receives about CalFresh applicants is confidential, she said. Any information about household members not applying for benefits, such as undocumented family members, is also confidential.

“The federal government does not access our data systems for immigration enforcement,” she said.

Despite that assurance, a 42-year-old undocumented mother in Santa Rosa, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of deportation fears, still refuses to enroll her California-born children in CalFresh.

“I don’t want to tell anyone that I’m here,” she said. “I don’t want them to think that I’m here, and that I’m taking advantage of the country. I work.”

Immediately after Trump’s inauguration, the draft of an executive order which called for a strict crackdown on immigrants deemed “public charges” made news headlines, though was never signed.

The draft order called for a denial of admission “to any alien who is likely to become a public charge.” It also called for officials to “identify and remove, as expeditiously as possible, any alien who has become a public charge and is subject to removal; and seek reimbursement from all sponsors of immigrants for the costs of federal means-tested benefits provided to sponsored immigrants.”

Catholic Charities’ clients are worried about becoming a burden to their sponsors, Torres said.

“If they request benefits, there’s a fear that (the government) might go after their sponsor and charge any benefit that individual has received, that they will charge it to the sponsor,” he said. “What we do to avoid this ... (is) we only apply for benefits for the U.S.-born household members. For those who are not U.S.-born, we opt them out of benefits, even though they’re eligible.”

The undocumented Santa Rosa mother, who fled violence in Michoacán, Mexico 14 years ago for a new life in America, said CalFresh would certainly help her feed her children. But for her, the risk outweighs the benefits offered through the program.

“We could save more money and get more food,” she said. “We buy chips. That’s not good for the children. That’s not good for us. But it’s cheap, and we have to feed our family whatever we can. Getting CalFresh, it’s more easy to buy any kind of food that people want. They have the possibility to get fresh vegetables from the farmers’ market. ... It would change my family’s life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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