Food Stamps for Thought

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Soon after the federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996 left thousands New York immigrants ineligible for food stamps, lawmakers in Albany stepped in with their own program for some of the state’s neediest immigrants who are elderly, disabled, victims of domestic abuse, or under 18.

Lawyers for a number of poor immigrants say those state regulations do not go far enough, however. Last week, they filed a class action lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the state’s welfare agency, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, claiming that the program actually violates the Equal Protection clauses of the state and federal constitutions.

The state’s Food Assistance Program, passed in 1997, excludes immigrants who came to the United States after August 1996–when the federal welfare law was passed–and have been out of the country for more than 90 days in the year before applying for assistance. Program participants are also required to apply for citizenship within 30 days of applying for food stamps.

The plaintiffs claim that the state cannot make such distinctions among legal immigrants. The federal and state constitutions simply state, said attorney Anne Pearson of the Welfare Law Center, that the government must “treat people equally under the law.”

Pearson and her colleagues from New York Legal Assistance Group, the Legal Aid Society, Welfare Law Center, Greater Upstate Law Project and Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, who are representing seven immigrants in the case, are asking for restoration of benefits lost since the program started on September 1, 1997. They estimate that 12,000 legal immigrants have been left out of New York’s food stamp formula.

“I think I should be able to get food stamps to be able to better assist myself and my family,” said one woman from Guyana, who arrived in the U.S. in 1999 and now lives in a shelter for battered women with her son, who is anemic.

Officials in Albany say the plaintiffs should appreciate how much New York State has done for immigrants. “This lawsuit ignores the fact that New York is a leading state for providing services for immigrants,” said Jack Madden, spokesperson for OTDA. He added that the State Supreme Court dismissed a similar lawsuit four years ago. At that time, the Welfare Law Center and the Legal Aid Society sued New York on behalf of able-bodied immigrants who are not covered under the state program. The court decided it was reasonable to target limited funds to those most in need.

But a more recent lawsuit may be on the immigrants’ side. Last year, the State Court of Appeals ordered officials in Albany to grant all legal immigrants access to Medicaid regardless of when they came to the United States.

“The state created a program that was good,” said Jennifer Baum of the Legal Aid Society. “But they did a bad thing, an unconstitutional thing, when they took that program and added things that have nothing to do with need.”