Food-Stamp Program Finally Speaks Their Language

Jennifer Delson, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 13, 2006

Though it goes against the conventional wisdom of anti-illegal immigration supporters, those who enroll the poor in the federal food stamp program say they’ve struggled for years to get immigrant Latino families signed up.

Now a Spanish-language news report and television ad campaign have spurred thousands of immigrants in Orange County over the last several weeks to contact a nonprofit organization that offers a Spanish-language class called “Food Stamps in Four Hours.”

The stream of immigrants contrasts sharply with what was going on just a few months ago when only a handful of immigrants would attend the free course.

The news report and ads were heard throughout Southern California, but those who responded in Orange County were directed to a nonprofit organization. Most other callers to the toll-free number were directed to county offices.

The Orange County strategy has been lauded throughout the state as a way to reach immigrants who are reluctant to get help from the government.

“They won’t come on their own,” said Jerry Sanders, food bank manager of the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Orange County in Garden Grove. “They come from countries where they think the government isn’t to be trusted. They figure there’s a catch to free food.”

Advocates say immigrants, if here illegally, are also worried about being deported if they apply for food stamps. Or they fear jeopardizing a pending application for residency or citizenship. Illegal immigrants can apply on behalf of their minor children here legally.

Other immigrants say they were simply embarrassed.

“The Mexican man is macho. He doesn’t want to come to this country and beg,” said Alfonso Chavez, the Community Action Partnership’s outreach coordinator. “I tell them this is a program that will help the children. The kids are American-born, and they have a right to this program.”

A Los Angeles County Department of Social Services task force is looking at ways to find eligible families to enroll. County workers have signed up families at food banks with only minor success.

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Aliso Viejo resident Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project, which fights illegal immigration, said the Orange County program encouraged illegal immigration.

These immigrants and their children “should only be given life-saving medical care,” Gilchrist said.

“If we encourage illegal alien families to come forward and exploit the . . . system, aren’t we encouraging more illegal immigration? We have to cut these benefits off.”

In 2004, Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service and the Mexican Embassy agreed to jointly disseminate brochures and create the public service announcements.

The agreement led Mexican Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro to tout the food stamp program on Univision’s KMEX Channel 34 six weeks ago. The newscast included the partnership’s phone number. More than 1,200 people called the partnership in the following days, Sanders said.

Then, two weeks ago, the Department of Agriculture began to air a monthlong series of ads on Spanish-language television in Southern California and three other markets in the U.S.

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In Orange County, several of those attending a recent “Food Stamps in Four Hours” class said they were convinced it was legitimate when they saw Ortiz Haro on television.

“This program is not welfare. It won’t affect your immigration status,” Ortiz Haro said on television.

“The program is a right, and if we don’t use it, it’s a privilege that will pass you by.”

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Sylvia Cruz, who has three U.S.-born children, came to the class after hearing about food stamps on a Spanish-language news report. She then worked to convince her husband, a construction worker who earns $1,800 monthly and pays $1,200 in rent.

“I think it was comforting for him to know the consul was talking about this program,” Cruz said.

“It made him think this won’t get us into trouble.”

Claudia Ortega, 31, said she called the nonprofit immediately after the newscast. Her husband didn’t need much convincing. The Mexican immigrant couple with three U.S.-born children struggle with a monthly income of $2,200 and $1,150 monthly rent, she said.

“We see how hard it is to get by here, even with two jobs,” Ortega said.

“We’ll take the help for a little while. It’s a program and it’s here for us to use.”

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