Above: 29th Class Emerson Hunger Fellow Bea Dresser (left) with field site partner Maryam Taysir.
The dictionary defines invisible with the phrase: “not openly acknowledged or made known.” Invisibility is the burden many food-insecure immigrant families face in the United States. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is dictated by legislation to exclude non-citizens, with a few exceptions for qualified refugees. As a daughter of a parent who was forced to flee El Salvador in the 1980s, I was always made aware of the sociopolitical struggles of my community of immigrants, undocumented people, and first-generation Americans.
In the summer of 2022, I received news of my field placement: Maryland Hunger Solutions in Baltimore, Maryland. Funnily enough, the first thing my mind went to was the amazing pupusaria which I knew is located in Silver Spring, Maryland. Fifteen percent of the state population is foreign-born, and 30 percent of the immigrant population is undocumented. Like other states across the country, immigrants in Maryland significantly contribute to the local economy. In 2018, immigrant-led households paid $8.0 billion in federal taxes and $4.1 billion in state and local taxes.
Maryland is home to a vibrant immigrant community, but unfortunately it is a home where access to food programs is complex and fraught with misinformation. While undocumented people are deemed ineligible for SNAP, there are ways that a household with mixed eligibility can attain SNAP benefits. In the state, a household with mixed-citizenship status—both ineligible (undocumented) and eligible (citizen or qualified immigrant) people—can apply for SNAP. Typically, a parent(s) who is undocumented can apply for SNAP benefits on behalf of their eligible U.S.-born children or dependents.
Maryland Hunger Solutions provides anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocacy and direct-client services for all Marylanders. One of Maryland Hunger Solutions’ contributions to anti-hunger efforts is their SNAP Outreach team, which provides SNAP application assistance via a hotline for all residents across the state.
While providing technical assistance on Maryland Hunger Solution’s SNAP application hotline, I was continually struck with the state agency burdensome requests for further verification documents from mixed-citizenship status applications. By nature of being prosecuted based on citizenship status in this country, this practice is alarming for households with undocumented people. The fear of deportation serves as a trap door under families’ feet, an ever-present threat. Yet, in the entire history of SNAP or the Food Stamp Program in Maryland, there has been zero cases of the state agency collaborating with ICE (The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for deportation efforts.
Statistical evidence shows a disparate impact of poverty in immigrant households, nationwide. There are also complex dynamics of poverty and access to citizenship within the immigrant community; undocumented folks experience poverty at worse rates (15.3%) compared to their foreign-born naturalized U.S. citizen (8.3%) and U.S.-born citizen (10%) counterparts.
Acknowledging the culture of distrust in the government, the differential treatment from the state regarding SNAP application processing, and the realities of hunger and poverty for immigrant households, sparked a question for me and my field placement partner, Maryam Taysir: How many households with undocumented folks are not getting the benefits they are eligible for?
We set out to get feedback from the immigrant community. Through a brief survey via text message, we were able to get some insights from previous SNAP applicants who called Maryland Hunger Solution’s hotline from the previous quarter. Illuminating insights included respondents identifying translation services as the least helpful factor within the application process as well as most stating that a major concern before applying was the fear of being ineligible.
Responses from Maryland Hunger Solution’s clients pointed to the pervasive barriers to SNAP for mixed-citizenship households. Fear of deportation, family separation, future chances of attaining citizenship, and job security are just a few of the major factors undocumented people face when claiming basic human rights. There are little opportunities to combat misinformation and harmful myths, myths that stand as a significant barrier to accessing food to survive.
We produced a SNAP Myth-Busting Toolkit. The toolkit addresses the various steps and barriers applicants face throughout the SNAP application process. Specifically, the tool kit dives into eligibility requirements, required verification documents for undocumented people applying on behalf of their household, a SNAP eligibility calculator, and a notice explaining that undocumented household members are not at risk of being deported under current state and federal rule. For now, the toolkit is in Spanish since over two-thirds of the immigrant population in Maryland speak Spanish at home.
Advocacy, to me, is a constant commitment to listen and lean into community. From my time at Maryland Hunger Solutions, I was able to learn from and be a part of an effort to uplift the expertise and lived experience of a community that is often silenced.