The annual CalFresh Awareness campaign was launched this month by Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services. The program helps low-income families and individuals buy fresh food with an Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT card in stores, farmers markets and participating restaurant chains. U.S. citizens and legal residents are eligible to apply for the CalFresh program.
But many who qualify are staying away. The reason, officials say, is the term “public charge.” A public charge is a non-U.S. citizen who is likely to become dependent on public assistance, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There are many factors that are considered, but if a person is deemed a public charge, he or she may be disqualified from becoming a citizen and ultimately deported.
“One of the barriers that we encounter is the misunderstanding of a public charge,” said Carlos Portillo, human services administrator for Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Social Services.
“We have been conducting the CalFresh awareness for the last seven years, and this particular program is not considered public charge,” he added. “That’s one of the issues we’re trying to address.
Examples of who may be considered as public charge are people who need cash assistance or those who need long-term care at government expense, but again, “receipt of such benefits must still be considered in the context of the totality of the circumstances before a person will be deemed inadmissible on public charge grounds,” according to federal immigration officials.
“Public benefits that are received by one member of a family are also not attributed to other family members for public charge purposes unless the cash benefits amount to the sole support of the family,” according to the USCIS website.
About 1.1 million people in the county are enrolled in the CalFresh program. But Portillo said another 700,000 can qualify, including people who are legal residents or citizens but their immediate family members are not.
Fear of deportation among immigrants, legal or not, has increased because of President Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement made 35 percent more arrests nationwide in roughly the first three months under Trump compared with the same period last year. But the number of arrests were down 23 percent compared with 2014, according to government data.
Still, Los Angeles County officials say they are hearing stories that immigrants with legal status or those who are undocumented are staying away from health and social services programs. At a county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Supervisor Hilda Solis said she’s hearing from residents in her district that pregnant women are afraid to go to hospitals to deliver their babies.
Los Angeles law enforcement officials as well as those with various county departments have said they will not share immigration status with ICE.
Such fears can be prevented if more people take the time to understand what can influence their status, said Claire Nicholson, spokeswoman for USCIS.
“It’s important that people know that receiving public benefits does not automatically make an individual a public charge,” Nicholson said. “It’s important that people educate themselves about public charge and visit the USCIS website at uscis.gov before seeking out a public benefit to ensure they do not jeopardize their eligibility for a green card or citizenship.”