Last month, Nourish California and the California Immigrant Policy Center published a devastating report, based on data collected by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research, on food insecurity faced by undocumented immigrant families in the Golden State.
The conclusions of the report are shocking, albeit not surprising: Fully 45 percent of the state’s undocumented residents are food insecure, with the preponderance of food insecurity occurring among children. The researchers found that 64 percent of children aged 17 or under lived in food-insecure households. By contrast, 11 percent of all American households and 10 percent of all Californian households are food insecure, according to data generated by United Health Foundations.
The food insecurity report’s authors also estimated that 625,000 undocumented adults in the state live in households that are below the federal poverty line ($26,246 for a family of four). This in a state where the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is more than $1,700 per month, and where the $15 per hour minimum wage was supposed to bring economic security within reach of California’s low-wage earners.
During the Trump years, many legal immigrants were systematically excluded from public benefits under the Public Charge rule. As for the undocumented, Trump’s team wanted to push them as far into the economic margins as possible, making their lives exercises in continual insecurity. At the state level, in a pushback against Trumpian excess, some states did make efforts to create benefits programs for undocumented residents, but often these programs were not accessed in large numbers by immigrants. Some worried that any paper trail linking them to benefits could be used by the federal government to track them down and commence deportation proceedings.
When emergency financial packages were put together by Congress during the pandemic, they systematically excluded the undocumented—even though millions of undocumented workers were suddenly left without income as hotels were shuttered, the garment industry went into hibernation, and so on; millions of others kept their jobs but lacked access to even the most rudimentary health benefits. This despite the fact that newspapers were filled with stories about how so many undocumented residents, and their family members, heroically performed “essential work” to keep a pandemic-ravaged economy and society on their feet.
States like California tried to plug these huge gaps in the social safety net. In April, 2020 Governor Newsom announced $75 million in disaster relief for the undocumented, and philanthropic organizations pledged to raise and distribute another $50 million. It was a noble gesture, but inadequate to the scale of need, with only about 7 percent of the state’s more than 2 million undocumented residents accessing the payments. A patchwork of cash benefits provided by the city, with partners in the business and philanthropic communities, also provided some benefits to undocumented Los Angelenos. Again, the scale of need outpaced the response.
At the start of this year, Newsom proposed expanding public food assistance programs to members of the undocumented community who are at least 55 years old. The proposal followed California’s recent expansion of MediCal to cover undocumented residents over the age of 50 (and his proposal in February to take this a step further and basically eliminate age restrictions on access to MediCal).
These are good proposals—and they certainly place California in a moral universe radically different from Texas’s. There, Governor Greg Abbott recently suggested testing the limits of Supreme Court rulings mandating that states pay for undocumented children to attend K-12 schools. But the longer these proposals remain aspirational rather than operational, the more undocumented families—even in Deep Blue states like California—will slip deeper into poverty and hunger.
As of this spring, California’s undocumented millions still remain ineligible for CalFresh, the state’s implementation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which distributes food assistance dollars to qualifying individuals and families. In consequence, hundreds of thousands of Californians are going hungry.
Legislation on the issue was debated last year. Senate Bill 464, introduced in early 2021 by Senator Melissa Hurtado, would have expanded California’s nutritional assistance programs to cover all low-income Californians, regardless of their immigration status. The Senate passed the bill, but the Assembly held off on voting for it.
An array of organizations that work on food security issues have come out in favor of the legislation in recent months. It’s past time that California’s legislators resurrected this legislation and sent it through for Governor Newsom to sign. After all, the state is currently flush with cash; its budget surplus this year stands at a whopping $68 billion. Even after putting aside billions of dollars in case of an economic downturn bad, there still ought to be funds available to ensure that huge numbers of undocumented children don’t go to bed hungry every night.