Low-income immigrant mothers are skipping the chance to get nutritious foods and help for their infants from a federal program because they fear deportation, or the loss of their children, according to the agencies that distribute those benefits.

People are saying “they are scared to ask for WIC services,” said South Philadelphia community organizer Claudia Peregrina, referring to clients of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. “They believe their children will be taken.”

WIC enrollment nationwide has been declining since around 2011, federal figures show. While the decrease is partially attributed to overall lowered birthrates and a drop in poverty in some areas, administrators say they are witnessing an unprecedented number of people withdrawing from the WIC program since the Trump administration proposed changes in immigration rules last fall.

“Worries about immigration have been going on since the election,” said the Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association, the nonprofit education arm and advocacy voice of WIC.

“It most particularly mushroomed after the president made it clear he was targeting immigrants, and now this rule change is creating all kinds of fear that immigrants are being targeted.”

Broke in Philly logo.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WIC provides nutrition education, nutritious foods, breastfeeding support, and health-care referrals for low-income women who are pregnant, or postpartum, and low-income women with infants and children up to age 5.

Throughout the country, WIC enrollment dropped from more than 7.2 million people in fiscal year 2017 to 6.8 million in fiscal year 2018, federal figures show, a more than 5 percent drop.

In Philadelphia — where the poverty rate is not declining as it is in many other places — enrollment fell from around 52,000 to more than 50,000 in the same time period, state Department of Health figures show. Overall, Pennsylvania enrollment declined by around 3.5 percent between the fiscal years of 2017 and 2018; in New Jersey, the drop was 4.5 percent. While there are no numbers documenting the recent pullout from WIC, Greenaway and others describe advocates across the nation sounding the alarm that immigrants now believe that participating in WIC means a one-way ticket out of America.

“Immigrants are afraid to come for services,” said Linda Kilby, executive director of N.O.R.T.H. Inc., the Philadelphia WIC program. She discussed the situation during a City Council hearing on hunger earlier this month. “It is surreal. I testified that we are losing people because they’re afraid of being deported.”

Sounding the alarm

It’s not clear how many women are leaving WIC due to deportation fears, Greenaway said. That’s because WIC doesn’t ask its clients to delineate their immigration status.

“While there is no direct data ... as to why WIC enrollment has decreased,” said a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which administers the WIC program in the state, “the belief is that the actions of the current federal administration have those who are seeking services fearful of action against their immigration status.”

WIC is so pervasive that at least 50 percent of all U.S. infants have participated in the program, Greenaway said.

Ironically, Greenaway and others said, as it’s currently written, the proposed rule change that is roiling immigrants does not deal with WIC recipients. But the overall sense of anti-immigrant feelings fuels their anxiety, experts say.

In the United States, undocumented immigrants are ineligible to receive most federal benefits, such as food stamps (now known as SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), federal guidelines show.

WIC has traditionally been viewed differently by Congress. The program has long enjoyed bipartisan support because it focuses on pregnant women and babies. And, experts say, it’s been providing benefits, regardless of immigration status, since its inception in 1972.

It should be pointed out that an estimated 75 percent of the children in WIC are already U.S. citizens, said Geraldine Henchy, a director of the Food Research & Action Center, an antihunger lobbying group in Washington.

Public charge rule

At the heart of the WIC fears is the so-called public charge rule.

For around 100 years, the United States has declared that any individuals immigrating to this country must be able to support themselves and not become a public charge — someone consistently dependent on the government for subsistence.

However, Philadelphia immigration attorney William Stock said, “the rule has not previously been enforced often.”

That may be changing.

In October, the Trump administration proposed an alteration of the public charge rule that applies to immigrants who are in the country legally but are not yet citizens.

As it is currently expressed, the proposal states that if legal immigrants have received public benefits like SNAP and Medicaid, it could be used against them and they could be deported. The rule change does not include WIC. (According to previous reports, it once did but was dropped.)

The Trump administration has defended the proposal vigorously: “This ... will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at the beginning of the rule-change process.

At the National Press Club in September, Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, assured the nation that the government wasn’t acting with malevolent intent.

“The goal is not to reduce immigration or in some diabolical fashion shut the door on people ... ,” he said, adding that the proposed rule change was “rational and reasonable.”

The rule went through a two-month comment period and now, advocates say, the nation is awaiting final word about the proposed change from the administration.

Advocates say the fear that’s generating a nationwide pullout from WIC services will result in pregnant and breastfeeding women losing access to health care, and children having their health and their lives jeopardized.

“For the administration to scare people away harms the public health and kids’ ability to learn,” said FRAC president Jim Weill. “It gratuitously harms potentially hundreds of thousands of people.”

Laura Handel, a public benefits expert at the Foundation for Delaware County’s Healthy Start and Nurse-Family Partnership Programs, said the proposed rule change brings together two unpopular groups: “Low-income communities have always been demonized,” she said. “But when it’s low-income and immigrant communities together, the demonization is compounded.”

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.