Luisa Fortin sometimes sits up at night, wondering what her clients are eating. She is the SNAP Outreach Coordinator for the Chattanooga Food Bank — but lately she has done less outreaching.
Her families, working immigrants in northwest Georgia, are spooked by the political climate, Fortin said. Increasingly, she's being asked to explain how food stamps may impact immigration status, if not to outright cancel family food benefits.
Since mid-January, five of Fortin's families have withdrawn from the SNAP program. One, the single mother of three citizen daughters, had fled to Georgia to escape an abusive husband. Another, two green-card holders with four young children, were thinking of taking on third jobs to compensate for the lost benefits. These families represent a small fraction of Fortin's caseload — she estimates she has signed 200 immigrant families up for SNAP over the past six months — but based on the calls she gets from other clients, she fears more cancellations are imminent.
"I get calls from concerned parents all the time: 'should I take my kids out of the program?'" Fortin said. "They're risking hunger out of fear . . . and my heart just breaks for them."
Chattanooga is not an outlier here, either.
In the two months since President Donald Trump's inauguration, food banks and hunger advocates around the country have noted a decline in the number of eligible immigrants applying for SNAP - and an uptick in immigrants seeking to withdraw from the program.
Their fear, advocates say, is that participation could draw the eye of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or hurt their chances of attaining citizenship. Without federal nutrition benefits, many are resorting to food pantries and soup kitchens to feed themselves and their children.
The evidence is still anecdotal — and The Washington Post was unable to speak directly with immigrants who chose to cancel their SNAP benefits.
"This is a response to the climate of fear and terror that immigrant families are living in because of the Trump administration," said Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center. "These are unfounded fears. But they're based in this environment, and they're very widespread."
According to the Department of Agriculture, 1.5 million noncitizens received food stamps in the 2015 fiscal year, as did 3.9 million citizen children living with noncitizen adults. The rules for receiving public assistance are strict, and immigrants tend to utilize food benefits at a much lower rate than their native-born neighbors. Studies have also shown that immigrant households tend to suffer more hunger.
For legal immigrants who entered the country after August 1996, eligibility is determined based on their age and time in the U.S. Adults qualify only after they've lived in the U.S. for five years, or if they're refugees or disabled; children who entered legally qualify sooner.
Undocumented immigrants are never eligible for food stamps, though they may live in a "mixed eligibility" household that does receive them. For instance, it's not uncommon for undocumented parents to apply for assistance on behalf of their citizen children.
Recently, however, some in both the undocumented and legal immigrant communities have begun to fear that using SNAP could have consequences. While those fears have always existed in immigrant communities, they appear to have grown more intense since President Trump's inauguration.
Legal immigrants worry that receiving SNAP could reflect on them negatively during the citizenship vetting process. Undocumented immigrants, applying on behalf of their children, are increasingly wary about any interaction with the government.
"Because of what's happening with immigration, they want to remain anonymous," said the executive director of a suburban Maryland community center that works extensively with the undocumented population. She asked that her name and organization be withheld out of concerns that ICE might target it. "They just make do on menial amounts of food. They're okay with rice and beans. I have parents who won't even apply for free or reduced-price lunch, because it puts them on the radar."
At food banks from Tucson to Baltimore, SNAP enrollment staff who work with immigrants have reported both a new reluctance to sign up for benefits and a paranoid interest in canceling them.
Hunger Free America, a national anti-hunger nonprofit, has seen a marked uptick in the number of calls it receives from its partners, asking how to advise newly nervous clients. Miguelina Diaz, the organization's Food Support Connections Program Manager, recently helped two legal resident families in Corona, Queens, remove themselves from SNAP. One of the women, a mother of two, asked for Diaz's help erasing her records from a local food pantry, as well.
"They're making these decisions based on what they hear in the news or information they're getting from other people," Diaz said. "People started asking questions right after Trump took office."
In Maryland, immigrants have begun to avoid outreach workers visiting churches and apartment complexes. The Maryland Food Bank has seen its Spanish-language SNAP applications fall from 20 a month to zero.
"They're staying away from me," said Ricardo Batiz, a SNAP outreach coordinator at the Food Bank who works with the Latino community. "I say hi to them, and they avoid me completely. I don't know what they've been saying amongst themselves. But no one is signing up anymore, and the people who need to renew are not renewing."
The growing fear and distrust is beginning to affect those who work with the low-income immigrant community. In northwest Georgia, where immigrants from Mexico and Central America work the region's apple orchards, construction sites and carpet mills, Fortin cried in a Chattanooga Food Bank staff meeting as her colleagues discussed SNAP and immigration enforcement.
Fortin has talked a number of her "parents," as she calls them, from canceling their electronic benefit transfer cards and withdrawing their children from the program. But she senses that more will cancel out of fears around immigration.
"I try my best," she said. "And I try my best to keep in touch in them. . . . But in the end, if that fear is too real, I tell them it's their family's decision. And I connect them with a food pantry or mobile food distribution."
It's difficult to tell exactly how many people have canceled their benefits. SNAP is administered by state agencies, and the way each state accepts and tracks withdrawals is different. In some states, participants can withdraw by calling a caseworker, while in others they must fill out and submit a form. Many people also "withdraw" from benefits by declining to fill out periodic recertification paperwork.
As a result of that, recent state withdrawal rates are inconsistent. In Texas, where 55 percent of immigrant households with children receive food assistance, the number of households requesting voluntary withdrawal has been decreasing since late last year. In Arizona, where 49 percent of such households receive food assistance, voluntary withdrawals doubled between November and February. There are no national figures.
Given all this uncertainty, many advocates say they don't know how to advise their clients. While none of the SNAP regulations have changed, President Trump's immigration agenda has raised fears they may change in the future.
The Department of Agriculture's formal guidance for noncitizens, codified in a June 2011 document, says that there are no immigration consequences for legal immigrants who participate in SNAP. A spokesman for the department confirmed that this is still its official position.
"[Non-citizens] will not be deported, denied entry to the country, or denied permanent status because they apply for or receive SNAP benefits," the document says.
Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security reaffirmed last month that its "sensitive locations memo" is still in place. That instructs ICE not to perform raids at hospital, schools, churches and other places where immigrant families, documented or not, might pick up food aid.
But there's no doubt that the president's priorities on immigration and public benefits differ sharply from those of his predecessor. Under President Trump, immigration raids have increasingly targeted non-criminals and taken place at traditionally safe locations, such as church shelters and schools. In late January, a draft executive order sought to reclassify receipt of public benefits, including SNAP, as a justification for deporting or denying citizenship to legal immigrants.
"We used to tell people that signing up does not make you a public charge," said David Thomsen, a health policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza. "Now my advice would be, if you're worried, talk to a lawyer."
Not everyone casts this as a negative turn of events, of course. Some conservative pundits and lawmakers believe that immigrants - legal and undocumented - have too much access to public benefits. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has long maintained that even legal immigrants on public benefits take more out of the system then they pay into it. And they, along with groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and conservatives in Congress, claim that undocumented immigrants do indirectly receive food stamps and other public benefits through their citizen children, even if they're not personally counted in the household aid determination.
"I don't think it's proper to increase the burden on U.S. taxpayers for people whose only claim to them is that they broke our law," said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at Heritage. "These children receive a large amount of benefits because their parents came here illegally."
Taking families off food stamps, however, does not lessen that burden - and may increase it. Families denied food assistance frequently turn to food pantries and soup kitchens, which are often tight to begin with. And historically, these organizations have also failed to compensate entirely for cuts to food assistance programs.
In 1996, after the Clinton administration established the five-year waiting period for legal immigrants to receive public benefits, utilization of those benefits fell off sharply. An analysis by Harvard University economist George Borjas found that for every 10 percent drop in immigrant households receiving public assistance, there was a 5 percent increase in food insecurity.
Research has shown that food insecurity has long-term public health consequences, including increased rates of depression, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, and mental and behavioral problems in children. A peer-reviewed 2015 study estimated that the health care costs for the severely food insecure are more than twice those of their food-secure equivalents.
"We are creating an environment where there are kids living in this country exposed to hunger and malnutrition, and without access to health care," said Vimo, of the National Immigration Law Center. "The consequences of not properly caring for those children will catch up with us when they're older."
Anti-hunger activists are not going down without a fight. At the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in early March, Vimo led a packed panel discussion on how to fight "threats" to immigrants' use of public benefits under the new administration. Among other things, she distributed fliers where anti-hunger advocates could record "how the changing and uncertain political climate" has impacted the immigrants they work with. The National Immigration Law Center has promised to circulate those stories to lawmakers and journalists.
Fortin was glad to see that the families who canceled benefits were receiving a monthly box of good, healthy food, including produce, from a north Georgia food pantry.
"But it's definitely not enough for the whole month," Fortin said, her voice tight. "They were getting $150 on EBT."