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Reaching into the Shadows

By Carol Ward

Navigating the Intricacies of Serving Undocumented Families

Summer 2012

For the rural churches and groups that rely on the food bank, this level of bureaucracy is daunting.

“It’s very confusing for a lot of these small organizations,” Hiatt says, adding that several are noncompliant. “We have to place them on hold until they can get their paperwork done. Their whole mission is to feed hungry people, and this has made trying to help people in need much more difficult.”

The challenges do not end there. According to Hiatt, the new law requires that if any agency is providing assistance based on any criteria— such as means testing—then that agency must determine if the person receiving the food is an American citizen.

An obvious way around that problem would be to eliminate the means testing, which would then exempt the agency from inquiring about immigration status—except that under federal law, food provided through the TEFAP program requires such testing.

“The problem is that without federal food there isn’t much food available,” says Hiatt. “Ever since the economy went south it’s been federal food that has held us together.” That problem has been made worse by the diminished farming in Alabama—due to a lack of migrant labor under the new rules— which means food banks can no longer rely on “community food security” programs, as they did in the past.

The solution is less than ideal. “Many of the food banks are just getting everybody they serve to sign a statement saying they are a U.S. citizen, regardless of the reality, and that gets [the food bank] off the hook,” Hiatt says, adding, “It’s just gotten insane down at the distribution level.”


That inability to access public services is exacerbated by the other significant problems that undocumented individuals typically face, including threat of deportation, barriers to working legally, and being barred from low-income housing. In addition, they are often hesitant to seek medical care or ask for help in school for fear of drawing attention to their families’ illegal status.

immigration and homelessnessA worker assists a Mexican family with immigration paperwork in her Garden City, Kansas, office. Her clients range from completely undocumented residents to those seeking to visit their home countries and needing the proper paperwork to return to the United States legally.

The agencies that exist to help the poor in this country are often stymied in their efforts to assist undocumented individuals and families, due to restrictive or confusing laws governing who is eligible for help. Yet there are strategies that service providers can use to best meet the needs of undocumented clients. The first step is outreach. 

Ask? Don’t Ask?

Experts in the field say that there are programs to address many of the crises that befall undocumented families—including homelessness and lack of food—on an alarmingly regular basis. But many of these families are loath to be found out, or to give any information that might reveal their undocumented status.

Eliana Kaimowitz, an attorney and equal justice works fellow for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, maintains that having that information is crucial to determine the most efficient way to help.

“It’s really hard to help people if you don’t know what’s going on,” Kaimowitz says. “It’s important to let people know that immigration status won’t preclude you from helping them, but it may help clarify what type of help you can give them.” She suggests assuring clients that the service provider “has an obligation not to disclose” the information with others.

“Not asking about it just further perpetuates the undergroundness of it all,” Kaimowitz adds. “What’s really terrible is that so many families are eligible for services but they’re not getting them.” She points to mixed-status families, in which one or more members are U.S. citizens while others are not, as a key example.

Others say asking about immigration status creates an unnecessary barrier to services.

“It’s clear that nonprofits, under federal law, don’t have an obligation to ask about immigration status,” in the view of Meliah Schultzman, an attorney with the National Housing Law Project. She notes that immigration status does not come down to simply being documented or undocumented—that there are many categories in between. There is considerable confusion at the provider level about which programs are applicable for undocumented families or families whose status is between illegal and legal, meaning that questions about status may not always be helpful to ask.

“As a policy it would be very helpful if a nonprofit provider made it clear from the outset that they do not need to know about immigration status and are not going to ask about it,” Schultzman says.

“Even though immigration is such a hot topic, most social workers don’t know anything about how it works and what the different statuses are,” according to Kaimowitz. “It’s more complicated than just having a green card or being undocumented. There are different statuses that make you eligible for different types of assistance, and people don’t know that.

immigration and homelessnessVolunteers prepare bags of food that will be distributed at the Community Posada to support immigrant families who are struggling in the challenging Arizona economy—one made more difficult by the new laws regarding the employment of undocumented workers.

“A lot of the social workers are really overworked so they don’t have time to ask their supervisor, they just say ‘no, you’re ineligible’,” Kaimowitz adds. “It’s more work and in some situations there is no guidance.”

Bowyer’s agency works to get documentation for illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria. One example is those who have applied for U Visas. Created by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, U Visas are designed to provide lawful status to noncitizen crime victims who are assisting or are willing to assist legal authorities with investigations. U Visa status may be available to victims of domestic violence or certain other crimes.

In some states, including New York and California, public benefits are available for U Visa applicants, Bowyer says.

“The problem is that front-end workers don’t understand the law—a woman applies for services but they are denied because the social worker tells her she needs a social security number,” Bowyer says, noting that her agency has started a major effort to educate providers with regard to this issue.

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