Episcopalians in food ministry worry vulnerable immigrants aren’t being fed because of detention fears

By Amy Sowder
Posted May 10, 2018

Home Cooked Fridays, a weekly meal prepared by the community for the community, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Austin, is prepared with rescued food. Photo courtesy of Kelly Barnhill

[Episcopal News Service] It’s a problem with no clear solution. Immigrants with pending U.S. applications for legal residence or citizenship fear a possible new regulation that could mean they’ll hurt their chances toward those residency goals if they use government nutrition programs to help feed their eligible family members, thus possibly tearing their families apart.

One thing is obvious, however, some food-ministering Episcopalians say: Politics aside, feeding the hungry is a Christian duty.

The Department of Homeland Security has drafted a regulation that would allow officials to factor in the use of public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, i.e., food stamps) when deciding whether to approve some visa or green card applications, according to the New York Times.

As they serve up rice, meat and vegetables, many Episcopal food ministry providers talk with immigrants and listen to the stories of how some, especially those caught in complicated situations with their legal residency status, suffer disproportionately from food insecurity and poverty in the United States. Now on top of worrying about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, they fear the proposed regulation’s effect on their ability to become legal residents or citizens if they accept help to feed their children. As media reports come out and rumors swirl, it’s still unclear if that worry is founded.

“I am deeply concerned about how all of this bears on our gospel need to protect the poor and the disenfranchised,” Brian Hopper, parishioner of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, told Episcopal News Service.

Until Hopper’s term ended in March, he was the church’s board representative of Micah 6 Austin, a consortium of central Austin churches that serve hungry people in that area of the city. The group distributed 26,000 pounds of food to 869 individuals and families in February, the latest numbers available.

Home Cooked Fridays is a community outreach program in Austin, Texas, that uses the universal language of food to help address some of the social, health and developmental issues that affect teens and adults. Photo: All Saints’ Episcopal Church

Not everyone who feels vulnerable to this problem needs to worry, said Elizabeth Gibson, an immigration attorney with New York Legal Assistance Group, which helped 34,000 immigrants in 2017. The new administration is trying to broaden the number of people affected by the Immigration and Nationality Act, which has a comprehensive list for who is ineligible for admission, including those likely to become a public charge, by redefining what kind of assistance is being considered and how it’s considered, she said.

Still, the proposed rule change won’t hurt certain types of immigrants who were exempt already, including survivors of abuse who qualify through the Violence Against Women Act, T visas, the Special Immigrant Juvenile Statute, asylum-seeking and U visas for those who don’t fall under the other categories.

“They’re not changing the law itself, so they’re not changing the exemption,” Gibson told ENS.

“It’s technically a forward-looking test about checking if you may depend on benefits in the future, not necessarily if you’ve used them in the past. It’s not retroactive, but it’s already having a chilling effect on these public services, surrounding the whole issue in fear and rumor.”

The draft of the proposed regulation change was sent to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget on March 29. The next step is for the proposal to be published in Federal Register, announcing a 60-day comment period on www.regulations.gov. Then the final rule will be published in the Federal Register and take effect, Gibson said.

It’s a rule-making process that has no set deadline. Although Gibson expects pushback from advocacy groups, “it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, more like when it’s going to happen.”

Episcopal food ministry volunteers witness the fear

Still, several Episcopal food ministries are seeing sharp drops in visitors in the last year or two.

The drop has happened gradually over the past year but took a sharp dip as recently as December and January, said the Rev. Frank Alton, provost at the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles Cathedral Center of St. Paul and rector of its St. Athanasius Episcopal Church in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The church has a Friday food bank operating out of the cathedral center and serves a Wednesday hot meal, called Transforming Hunger, outside in the adjacent garden.

The food bank saw a drop from 300 people served every Friday to 150. Food banks offer fresh produce and packaged goods that require preparation at home, so most recipients at food banks have homes but are struggling to make ends meet, Alton said. At the Wednesday hot meal, which draws more people without homes, attendance dropped from about 100 people to 40 people.

“The most significant decrease is among Hispanics,” Alton said. His volunteers hear from guests that they’re worried about the administration’s tougher immigration rules and enforcement, and about possible raids. “One of the reasons is they’re afraid of ICE coming and doing a roundup. They’ve said that point blank. It’s dramatic.”

The Rev. Francisco J. Garcia Jr. is co-chairperson of the Diocese of Los Angeles sanctuary task force, called L.A. Sacred Resistance, and has worked in immigrant rights and justice issues for 15 years. He is also rector of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, California. The task force formed within the last two years, when presidential campaign promises panned out through executive orders for tougher immigration rules. Members offer pastoral care and advocate for changes in government policy.

“It creates the general culture of fear when these punitive policies or laws are enacted, and that hurts what we’re trying to do,” Garcia said. “There are going to be more and more people afraid to access anything, which is especially detrimental to families that have children and may be eligible. A lot of times the parents are not documented, but the kids are actually eligible because they were born here, and the parents are afraid to reveal themselves in any way.”

Foreign-born people comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates.

Jubilee Ministries try to help

For 25 years, Jubilee Ministries in dioceses across the Episcopal Church have sought to be on the front line of feeding the hungry – regardless of nationality and citizenship, the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the Episcopal Church director of reconciliation, justice and creation care, told ENS. More than 690 parishes feed hungry people in their communities with food pantries, soup kitchens, community meals, community gardens and backpack programs, Mullen said.

“Fighting hunger is at the heart of our Episcopal understanding of mission. Jesus fed the hungry and told his disciples to do the same,” Mullen said. “Yet, we know that hunger is an extremely complex phenomenon with economic, political and social causes. That is why many Episcopal parishes have joined together in networks to combat hunger and serve the vulnerable in our communities.”

Volunteers served guacamole nachos as part of the weekly Home Cooked Fridays Community Meal at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Austin. Photo: All Saints’ Episcopal Church

At Trinity Amnesty Center in Aurora, Illinois, Linda Barber is a Jubilee minister who helps people mostly with applications for U.S. citizenship and with green card applications for direct relatives of a U.S. citizen or legal resident. In the last 30 years, she’s helped more than 1,000 people become citizens. Aurora, the second largest city in Illinois, is about 40 miles from Chicago and has a large Spanish-speaking population.

But while her applicants are going through the complicated process, Barber warns them to be very careful about using any government nutrition services for their children, who qualify if they were born in the U.S. because they are citizens.

“I just tell them they better not because it could jeopardize their chances, which is really, really sad,” Barber told ENS. “Immigration is a strange ballgame.”

For the last 25 years, Barber has also been coordinating the 100-125 hot meals served weekly at the Sandwich Board, a soup kitchen ministry in partnership with other churches that’s hosted at her church. She’s seen the number of Latino guests increase in tandem with the area’s population change in the last 10 years.

Barber knows she must have a lot of unauthorized immigrants at her soup kitchen but doesn’t ask because she’s not required to get that information, she said. Food ministries that get funding from government grants are often required to track demographics.

Worry about being listed in any kind of record books for receiving free food has stopped people from getting the help they need, said Dianne Aid, director of the Jubilee Center in Auburn, Washington, a ministry of the Diocese of Olympia in Washington state. Aid knows several people who can serve as examples, who don’t want to use their full names for safety’s sake.

Ariana, an Episcopalian in her mid-30s, came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a toddler with her parents, Aid said. She’s trying to gain legal status while also working and feeding her U.S.-born children, supplementing what she can provide with SNAP to help feed her kids.

But Ariana quit the food stamp program because she’s afraid it could hurt her ability to become a legal resident, or worse, instigate deportation, tearing her away from her children.

“I’ve been working with this population since 1993, and I’ve not seen such fear until now,” Aid told ENS.

She’s worked with Ariana, who, after resorting to selling flowers on the street to feed her kids, was able to secure a full-time job working for an activist agency. Aid’s Jubilee Center focuses its work on immigrants, mostly from Latin America and largely undocumented, through pastoral support, training, and help with applications, particularly for victims of domestic violence. She’s also trying to instill cultural heritage pride in the native-born children. There’s a teaching kitchen and garden.

In Auburn, Washington, Jubilee Center volunteer Vicki Cubillos scrapes kernels off a corn cob to make masa for tortillas. She coordinates a women’s economic empowerment group and is part of a Mexican indigenous drum and dancing group. Photo: Dianne Aid

“This is not about undocumented people greedily taking welfare. These are people that are part of the fabric of our community and are trying to feed their children, who are for the most part U.S. citizens,” Aid said about families with members who have different residency statuses. “Most undocumented people aren’t taking welfare because most of them don’t qualify and can’t get it.”

By 2017, 11.1 percent of native-born households and 12.3 percent of households headed by immigrants who arrived in the previous five years used the SNAP program, according to an April 2018 report from the Center for Immigration Studies.

Diverting food that would otherwise be wasted

It’s a statistic often cited: More than 40 percent of the food in the United States goes uneaten and is wasted, which totals $165 billion a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To fight that waste when so many go hungry, Kelly Barnhill succeeded Hopper as the current All Saints’ representative on the Micah 6 Austin board and gathers unused food from grocery stores and restaurants. Still, she worries that those who need it the most can’t get it.

A creamy chicken, carrots and peas dish topped with biscuits with a side of asparagus and mixed green salad plus cookies for dessert is an example of the kinds of well-rounded, nutritious and delicious meals offered at Home Cooked Fridays. Photo: All Saints’ Episcopal Church

“There are a lot of church programs or recreation centers that have food pantries, but no matter where you go, you have to provide proof of some form of residence. If I were in their shoes, I’d be scared to do that,” Barnhill told ENS. “How is food getting to people who don’t have documentation now? I was surprised that numbers for our food pantries and other food pantries have been dropping off.”

In March, the Rev. William “Billy” Tweedie, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin, started the Diverted Food Pantry where the recipients don’t have to provide any kind of identification. Data such as a photo ID, tax ID, proof of residency with a utility bill or simply a local zip code is often required by organizations that receive funding from elsewhere, like government grants or USDA partnerships. The idea to start the pantry came from Barnhill, who collects the unused food from nearby restaurants and grocery stores and diverts it from the dumpster to organizations serving it to the people who need it most.

The Rev. William “Billy” Tweedie, John Monroe, Jennifer Johnston and Christina Prikryl helped set up the first Diverted Food Pantry event in March at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin. Photo: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection

“I love the idea of having a food pantry with no questions asked. Which also means ideally we’re hitting people living below the poverty line who need food the most, and also using food that would end up in the dumpster or sit on shelves indefinitely,” Tweedie told ENS. “People just stop going and getting help because they’re afraid that ICE could be waiting for them.”

Tweedie offers volunteer opportunities to the food recipients, so the relationships feel more balanced.

Derek Minno-Bloom sees hunger as a justice issue, rather than a charity issue. He’s the social and food justice director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Trinity’s thrice-weekly food pantry and Saturday soup kitchen volunteers serve 30,000-35,000 meals a year, no questions asked. Bloom said he’s seen fewer people from the undocumented community come to the pantry since the beginning of the Trump administration out of fear of deportation, mostly his Latino/Hispanic and Haitian community members.

“As far as our undocumented community members, we have had ‘Know Your Rights’ training and have connected them to free and non-free lawyers. We have also made it known that we are a sanctuary church to all,” he said.

Mullen said the Episcopal Church’s work with vulnerable immigrants is rooted in the Gospel.

“Lack of legal status contributes to economic insecurity and exploitation,” she said. “Stigmatizing poverty and threatening immigrants is counter to the vision of Jesus.”

— Amy Sowder is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more at AmySowder.com.