According to a paper authored by Marcella Alsan of Stanford Medical School and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School, enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program and the Affordable Care Act declined among American citizens of Hispanic heritage once the Secure Communities program took effect. The immigration enforcement program was reinstated in 2017 by the Trump administration, following its cancellation in 2014 by the Obama administration. Administered by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), the program cross-checks fingerprints of individuals arrested by state and local law enforcement with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database in order to ascertain their immigration status.

If probable cause is determined, ICE can then issue a detainer request, which authorizes local or state law enforcement authorities to hold the individual for subsequent apprehension, if those authorities are not “sanctuary” jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. In sanctuary cities, where ICE detainer requests are not enforced, there was “almost no detectable effect” on participation in these programs after Secure Communities activation, according to the paper.

According to ICE, more than 375,000 unauthorized citizens were deported as a result of the program between 2009 and 2014. Alsan and Yang wrote in their paper:  “Removals under the Obama administration’s implementation of S[ecure] C[ommunities] comprised 20 percent of the approximately two million total removals during the time period.” According to the authors, citizens’ concerns spawned by Secure Communities might affect participation in social welfare programs such as SNAP (food stamps) among Hispanic citizens. SNAP is a federal program that provides Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards to eligible adults. EBT cards a form of debit payment that can be used to purchase groceries at SNAP-authorized retailers.

“Immigration enforcement may affect take-up because SNAP applications routinely ask for the names and Social Security numbers of all persons in the household applying for benefits,” the authors write. They added,  “Almost all states assure applicants their information will only be used to determine eligibility and will not be shared with ICE for immigration enforcement.” However, the Washington Post has reported that some immigrants choose to forgo benefits out of fear of deportation. 

The Affordable Care Act, which in 2010 expanded access to health insurance, similarly collects personal information about citizenship status for all household members. However, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services note that families that have members of various forms of immigration status are not required to disclose the status of family members not applying for coverage. This omission of information on immigration status is not grounds for denial of benefits.

The two researchers found, nevertheless, that there were declines in enrollment for these programs among Hispanic citizens. After examining  data on over two million alien detainers issued between 2008 and 2013, and data about SNAP and ACA enrollment, they looked at changes in welfare enrollment before and after the Secure Communities program as it was rolled out in communities across the nation.

While focusing on race and ethnicity, the researchers found:

In the years following the activation of Secure Communities, “Hispanic citizen heads of household reduce their take-up of food stamps by 14.5 to 17.2 percentage points relative to non-Hispanics, a 34 to 41 percent decrease from the pre-period Hispanic mean of 42.2 percent.”

Similar trends held for ACA sign-ups. “We find that a ten percent increase in detainers is associated with a 2.0 percentage point reduction in Hispanic ACA sign-up,” the authors write.

Declines in enrollment were largest in areas with a higher proportion of mixed-status Hispanic households (homes with both citizens and unauthorized residents). This indicates that fear might play a role in explaining these changes, according to the authors.

In sanctuary cities, where detainers are not enforced, there was “almost no detectable effect” on participation in these programs after Secure Communities activation.

There were larger participation decreases in these benefit programs in areas with “a higher incidence of detainers issued for low-level arrests,” as well as in areas with “greater increases in deportation fear,” as measured by survey data. The authors interpret this evidence as lending support to their hypothesis that deportation fears might drive these reductions.

The authors considered information gaps as an alternate explanation for the observed phenomenon. “Reducing the number of co-ethnics who sign up for a program could leave affected groups poorly informed about benefits,” they write. However, they determined that Hispanic households that had previously used food stamps “substantially reduced” their participation after implementation of Secure Communities. They take this to discredit the idea that information gaps might explain reduced enrollment among Hispanic households. They were not able to find a relationship between employment rates and changes in program participation either.

The authors conclude that “deportation fear may play an important role in explaining some of the uptake gap for Hispanic Americans, with potentially adverse long-term consequences for the health and well-being of Hispanic families.” Lower enrollment in these programs among Hispanics might have even wider implications: “Since Hispanics tend to have better health outcomes than similarly situated low-income whites or blacks,” the authors write, “their reduced participation in [ACA] could translate into higher premiums for other demographic groups. Most broadly, our results reveal that safety net programs interact with other government policies, yielding potentially unexpected results for families.”



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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