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Regional Interests

‘Essential for Everyone’: Food Aid Bill for Undocumented Californians Gains Momentum

A bill to offer food assistance benefits to undocumented immigrants gained momentum in the California Legislature this week, and its backers are now hoping funds for the initiative survive the budget negotiations underway between lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The bill, known as the Food For All Act (SB 464), would benefit low-income unauthorized immigrants and others who don’t qualify for federally funded CalFresh food aid because of their immigration status.Advocates say as many as 1 million California residents could qualify, including immigrants with humanitarian protections such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). And, they say, many undocumented immigrants are essential workers who should be recognized for their contributions to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Benyamin Chao, public benefits policy coordinator with the California Immigrant Policy Center, said the bill is especially important because the number of families facing hunger spiked during the pandemic, amid devastating job losses and a lack of universally available public assistance.

“The bottom line is that food is essential for everyone,” said Chao. “It’s essential for Californians to live a full and healthy life, regardless of your income, your race or ethnicity, or your immigration status.”

Chao, 25, whose family came to the U.S. from the Southeast Asian nation of Brunei when he was a small child, was once an undocumented immigrant himself — and he said he knows firsthand why expanded food aid is needed.

Although he eventually became a legal permanent resident after marrying a U.S. citizen, Chao said the rest of his family is still undocumented.

“My family was always at risk of food insecurity,” he said. “I have a single mother. She had to work extra hard to put food on the table. … She’s a caregiver for the elderly. It’s very hard work, working seven days a week.”

After college, when Chao was still looking for a job, his partner applied for CalFresh and received a $200-a-month benefit. Chao said the security it gave them was a game-changer, allowing him to spend a little more on clothing and transportation for job interviews.

“It helped me invest in myself because I wasn’t focused so much on spending money on food,” he said. “I was able to invest in ways where I could begin to not just survive, but to thrive.”

Chao celebrated on Tuesday when the state Senate passed SB 464 on a party-line vote of 31 to 9. The same day, Democratic leaders in both houses included funding for the program in their joint budget package — with $5 million for the upcoming 2021-22 budget year, and a proposal to steadily increase that funding to $550 million within three years.

The bill and the funding would expand the California Food Assistance Program, which provides food aid to roughly 35,000 legal immigrants and refugees who have been excluded from receiving federal food stamps since the passage of a 1990s federal welfare reform law.

Meanwhile, as of June 2020, 4.8 million Californians received assistance from CalFresh, the state’s primary food stamp program, which is funded by the federal government. That’s a nearly 20% increase from just before the pandemic, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The Senate’s analysis of the bill said the combined effects of the pandemic, wildfires and other disasters “have had a staggering effect on food security across the state.” It cited a U.S. Census Bureau finding that, as of February, nearly 30% of California households with children were food insecure.

Several Republican state senators contacted by KQED did not respond to a request for comment about their opposition to the bill, but the state Republican Party, as it states in its platform, opposes giving any social benefits to people who do not have a legal right to be in the state.

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, who sponsored the bill, said immigrant farmworkers in her Central Valley district — many of them undocumented — have long faced hunger and poverty. But seeing them risk their health during the pandemic to harvest food for other people, she said, pushed her to take action to expand the social safety net to all Californians.

“Food security is not just about someone’s legal status,” said Hurtado. “It’s about mankind, and making sure that we protect one another in a time of challenges.”

The state Assembly also passed a related bill this week, AB 221, by an overwhelming majority. And Hurtado said she is encouraged that leaders in both houses are backing expanded food aid, even as Newsom did not include funding for it in his May budget proposal.

So, as lawmakers begin negotiating with the governor to work out a final agreement before the Legislature’s June 15 deadline to pass a budget, Hurtado said she’ll be speaking out to make her case for why Newsom should support the expansion.

“It shows that we’re compassionate and we’re leading the nation,” she said. “It’s about good health. And it’s also about prosperity and opportunity. And we all deserve a shot at that. It’s beyond time that we do the right thing and make sure that food is accessible to all.”

Copyright 2021 KQED