Expert Commentary

After new immigration enforcement program, fewer Hispanic citizens enroll in SNAP, ACA

Enrollment in SNAP and the Affordable Care Act declined among Hispanic citizens of the United States after the Secure Communities program took effect.

ICE fingerprinting

Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Affordable Care Act declined among Hispanic citizens of the United States after the Secure Communities program took effect, a working paper by Marcella Alsan of Stanford Medical School and Crystal Yang of Harvard Law School finds.

Secure Communities is an immigration enforcement program enacted by the Obama administration that ran from 2008 to 2014 and was reinstated in 2017. The program, which is run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), cross-checks fingerprints of individuals arrested by state and local law enforcement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to determine their immigration status. Given probable cause, ICE can then issue a detainer, which authorizes local or state law enforcement to hold the individual for subsequent apprehension.

According to statistics from ICE, between fiscal year 2009 and 2014, over 375,000 unauthorized citizens were deported as a result of the program. “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,” the authors write.

They hypothesized that fear spawned by Secure Communities might affect participation in social programs like SNAP among Hispanic citizens.

SNAP, which is run by the United States federal government, helps address the issue of limited access to food. Formerly known as food stamps, the program offers low-income adults Electronic Benefits Transfer (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. In other words, Hispanic citizens of the U.S. might be afraid to apply for benefits because of associations with unauthorized family members.

The authors continue, “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 anecdotal evidence to suggest that some choose to forgo benefits because of deportation fears.

Similarly, the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to health insurance after it was enacted in 2010, collects personal information about citizenship status for all household members. However, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services note that families of mixed immigration status are not required to disclose the status of family members not applying for coverage; further, they note this omission is not grounds for denial of benefits.

Despite these assurances, the researchers found declines in enrollment for these programs among Hispanic citizens. They looked at data on over two million detainers issued between 2008 and 2013, along with data about SNAP and ACA enrollment. They examined changes in enrollment before and after the Secure Communities program as it was rolled out in communities across the nation, with a focus on differences in race and ethnicity.

They 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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