Scaring immigrants away from the table this Thanksgiving

Originally published on Star Tribune.

“Mami! Mami!” the little girl calls out when her mother returns home with bags of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and yogurt. “You filled up the refrigerator! You filled up the cupboards!”

The little one is an American citizen, enrolled in the federal food stamp program. Her mother, who entered the country illegally to work, now lives in the western suburbs and makes grocery runs that feel like calculated risks.

The mother’s friends urged her to drop out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. You could be arrested, they warned her, even though nothing like that has happened or is likely to happen to families enrolled in the program. You could be deported. They could take your kids away. “The heart of the president is really small,” the mother said through a translator, cupping her hands tightly together to show just how small President Donald Trump’s heart must be. “I don’t feel very safe right now.”

But her husband is injured and can barely work, and their 2-year-old has epilepsy. So she keeps her girls enrolled in the program and waits in dread for the midnight knock on her door or the immigration raid at her workplace.

Other immigrants are dropping out of public nutrition programs, though. In a study released last week, researchers interviewed thousands of immigrant parents, including mothers in Minneapolis. The harsher the president’s rhetoric — separating families at the border, suggesting a plan to deny legal immigrants a shot at citizenship if they seem like they’d need too much government aid — the more families stopped asking for the help they were legally entitled to receive. It’s Thanksgiving week and the Trump administration is scaring hungry families away from the table.

“There’s a panic,” said Ekta Prakash, executive director of CAPI, a Brooklyn Center-based nonprofit that connects refugees and new immigrants to jobs, housing, food and social services. The people who come into the immigrant opportunity centers entered the U.S. legally but are nevertheless scared, despite the staff’s efforts to reassure them, that asking for help today will cost them their futures.

At ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, the shelves are stacked high with fresh produce, baked goods and a rainbow of boxed and canned pantry staples. On a recent weekday, volunteers were clearing space in the room-sized freezers for turkeys and Thanksgiving trimmings.

Despite an economy that’s improving on paper, Minnesota food shelves are scrambling to meet demand. Unemployment is low, but many of those jobs are part time or don’t pay enough for families to cover the cost of rent, car insurance, doctor bills and groceries.

Now, all those families who have been scared away from the food-stamp program are turning to community food shelves for help.

If you think Minnesotans are going to turn hungry people away, you don’t know Minnesotans at all.

“This food shelf is here for … everybody who needs it,” said ECHO manager Deisy De Leon Esqueda, who distributes more than 2 million pounds of food a year, with the help of a small staff and hundreds of volunteers. They’ve helped parents who hold down multiple jobs that still don’t pay enough to cover the cost of groceries. They’ve helped international students pursuing graduate degrees and future citizenship who were afraid that applying for federal aid would make them look like a drain on society, rather than an asset.

“The changes proposed by the administration will make it more difficult for Second Harvest Heartland and our network of agency partners to end hunger in our communities,” Marcus Schmit, Second Harvest’s director of advocacy, said in a statement opposing the Trump administration’s plan to deny green cards to immigrants who seek help. “We fear the consequences of this change will result in immigrant families, especially children experiencing hunger … this proposal will make it harder to solve Minnesota’s hunger problem and doesn’t align with our mission at Second Harvest Heartland.”

Back in the western suburbs, the young mother was trying to explain.

“It’s not that we want these benefits. All we want to do is just work,” she said.

She and her husband sat around a small table at a diner, trying to convince their 2-year-old to keep her shoes and socks on her feet. Unconvinced, the toddler skipped away, giggling, and returned with a fistful of lollipops from the bowl by the register. One for herself, one for Mami, one for Papi.

“I wish this could be a country where they don’t take benefits away from children … where they don’t separate families,” the mother said. Her husband, who is in constant pain from a double hernia that makes it impossible for him to lift heavy things at work, is making plans to return to Mexico to have surgery he can’t afford in this country.

The family will be together for Thanksgiving. But once he leaves, it’s unclear when, or whether, he will be able to return. “God is great and puts us to many tests,” she said, wiping away her tears.

The Trump administration has invited the public to weigh in on the idea of punishing immigrants for using public services to which they or their children are legally entitled.

You can join the 60,000 others who have shared their opinions here: by clicking on the “comment now” button.