Commentary: What if you had to feel hunger pangs?

Originally published by the Chicago Tribune.

On a frigid morning earlier this month on the South Side, people of every race and age lined up out the front door of the Greater Lawn Public Health Center for two hours to receive bags of sweet potatoes, celery, squash and more.

Many were Latina mothers with young children in tow. Almost without fail, the kids’ eyes lit up with joy upon seeing the boxes of mangoes at the end of the line — a poignant reminder to be thankful for the simple pleasures of life.

It’s hard to fathom anyone wanting to deny low-income families basic food assistance. But a cruel and damaging proposal put forth by the Trump administration would make it harder for immigrants who are lawfully here to obtain permanent legal residence if they receive public benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, which are typically used by low-paid working families to make ends meet. SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, are a crucial front-line defense against the food insecurity that leads people to food banks. And the need for them is evident — more than 1.4 million people in Illinois are still at risk of hunger.

The mere threat of the policy change is already forcing some families to make an unconscionable choice between risking their chances for a green card and keeping their children healthy and fed. In some cases, immigrant parents who don’t yet have their green cards are choosing to not apply for food assistance for their children who are American citizens.

“It’s scary. I wish I could have an answer for all the people,” said Jazmin Cerda, a public benefits associate for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which serves the mostly Latino neighborhood of Brighton Park. Some of Cerda’s clients, many of whom are in dire need of assistance, are already choosing to not enroll in SNAP out of fear that it could hinder their chances of permanent legal residence, she said. That likely means less food for families, which could lead to poorer health and educational outcomes for the children. “The need for assistance will be greater than what it is now,” Cerda said.

This dangerous proposal comes at a time when immigrants are already dropping out of SNAP, because of the heightened hostile rhetoric around immigration and deportations. SNAP participation among immigrant mothers of young children dropped 10 percent in the first half of this year, an alarming decline after 10 straight years of increasing participation, according to new research from Children’s HealthWatch, a Boston-based nonpartisan network of pediatricians and researchers.

Commonly referred to as the “public charge” proposal, the White House seeks to expand the definition of what it means to be a public charge, or someone who is dependent on government services, as a factor in the determination of whether an immigrant becomes a legal permanent resident.

As it is now, the public charge test largely pertains to those receiving cash assistance or who are institutionalized for long-term care. Under the proposed change, that would be widened to include participation in SNAP, Medicare subsidies for medications, Medicaid and housing assistance. Making matters worse, the proposed new definition is presumptive and wholly unfair. If you’re an immigrant trying to obtain a green card and don’t receive any public benefits, you might still be considered a public charge if it is deemed likely that you will at some point.

It’s essentially a poverty test that would cruelly push low-income immigrants further into the shadows.

But the need for assistance will not simply disappear. As wages remain stagnant and jobs with limited benefits proliferate, hardworking families will continue to need support to afford the basics — including food during this holiday season and beyond.

When immigrant families drop out of SNAP for fear that they could risk their chance at legal permanent residency, they’ll turn to food pantries and soup kitchens. The Greater Chicago Food Depository and its 700 partner agencies in Chicago and throughout Cook County would not be able to meet such a surge in need. There will be other costs to pay. With fewer immigrant families participating in SNAP, there will be a decline in retail sales, which will in turn put jobs at risk.

No family should have to worry about where their next meal will come from.

Kate Maehr is executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. John Bouman is president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.