Deportation fears drive down food assistance requests, KCK’s El Centro officials say

At KCK organization, food-assistance applications down in Trump era

Cielo Fernandez works at El Centro, which assists Hispanic families in their applications for SNAP benefits. The number of applications plummeted after Trump took office.
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Cielo Fernandez works at El Centro, which assists Hispanic families in their applications for SNAP benefits. The number of applications plummeted after Trump took office.

The month after President Donald Trump took office, applications for food-assistance benefits plummeted at El Centro in Kansas City, Kan.

Applications are down 74 percent in the last four months compared with the same time a year ago.

El Centro, a nonprofit group serving the Hispanic community in Wyandotte County, shared its SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) application data with The Star. Officials there say rhetoric denigrating Hispanics, and especially those of Mexican descent, caused the decrease. A fear of deportation is on many people’s minds.

“Saying you’re a Mexican is like a blasphemy these days,” said Cielo Fernandez, the chief program officer with El Centro. “People look at you like you’re a rapist or a drug dealer. … It’s so damaging.”

Lizbeth De Jesus, a program coordinator at El Centro who helps families apply for SNAP benefits, said most families she works with are mixed status, in which some members are undocumented and others are U.S. citizens who can qualify for the assistance.

But for those undocumented parents, sharing information with a governmental entity, even to legally apply for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits for their children, causes too much anxiety.

“The fear of, ‘My information is there. I don’t know if the (government) will start looking into these databases,’ ” De Jesus said.

She added that the Kansas Department for Children and Families has assured her that SNAP applications will not be used to deport, but “nothing guarantees that,” she said.

Undocumented members of a family are not included as part of a family’s size, often leaving them short even when they do apply for SNAP benefits. Families that don’t apply out of fear are even worse off.

“I know they need help,” De Jesus said. “We’ve been inviting them to farmers markets and working with other programs such as food banks and churches to get them vegetables and (other food).”

Applications for SNAP benefits reached a peak at El Centro in January, with 276. The next month, after Trump’s inauguration, there were 21 applications.

Vilification by politicians including the commander in chief — who, when he announced his presidential campaign, said Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” — caused the precipitous drop, Fernandez and De Jesus said.

SNAP apps
Applications for food-assistance benefits plummeted from January to February at El Centro in Kansas City, Kan. Officials there say vitriolic rhetoric directed at Hispanics, and especially Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, instilled fear and caused the decrease. Data from El Centro

In a speech in Iowa Wednesday, Trump said immigrants in the country “must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years.”

But such stipulations already exist — under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, signed by former President Bill Clinton.

“What we’ve found since (the presidential election) is such a horrible anxiety,” Fernandez said. “Everybody is stressed.”

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg