On the morning of September 11, Dora M., a 59-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, took a two-and-a-half-mile bus trip from her home in Bushwick to the public assistance office on DeKalb Avenue. She carried a manila folder filled with tax returns, some more than 10 years old, that her daughter had tracked down from Dora’s estranged husband, who lives upstate in Saratoga.
Like all legal immigrants in New York, Dora had to reapply for food stamps because of new federal and state laws. She hoped this day would be the end of a three-month struggle to get back on the food stamp rolls after having been cut off without explanation in June, a termination that never should have happened. Andrew Friedman and Oona Chatterjee from Make the Road by Walking, a welfare assistance group that represented Dora in her attempts to reopen her case, met her in front of the building.
After checking in, the three waited on molded plastic chairs under flickering fluorescent lights while Dora’s caseworker photocopied the tax documents. When the worker didn’t return for over 30 minutes, Chatterjee went across the street and called the city director of food stamp programs. Finally, an hour and a half later, the office manager agreed to draft a letter restoring Dora’s benefits. In something resembling English, the notice read:
“…In addition, the documents submitted has also provided your food stamps household with sufficient qualifying work quarters. Upon the completion of the case review…you will receive the decision notice by postal delivery….”
For welfare rights activists across the city, this Kafkaesque tale is just one in a volume of stories about unlawful terminations, endless backlogs and frustrating recertification delays as the Human Resources Administration (HRA) struggles to steer its massive bureaucracy through the straits of welfare reform and complicated new regulations for immigrants.
The 1996 federal welfare act cut food stamp aid to all legal immigrants except those who can prove they have worked 10 years in the United States, been granted asylum, or are refugees or veterans of the U.S. Army. According to the New York Immigration Coalition, 110,000 legal permanent residents were supposed to lose their food stamps citywide.
The state legislature and Governor Pataki ameliorated some of the impact last August, approving the Food Assistance Program (FAP) to restore food stamps for legal immigrants who are over 60, under 18 or disabled. Under FAP, New York City is putting 60,000 legal residents back on the rolls. Yet FAP still leaves 50,000 able-bodied adult immigrants without aid. City caseworkers simply don’t understand the new rules clearly enough or are unwilling to make the effort to comply with them, critics say.
“The laws are changing, there are too many clients, and there is very little [social service] support for them,” Friedman says, charging that HRA workers are inclined to take the path of least resistance to avoid trouble.
Others don’t place as much blame on the city as on the timetable for implementation. “At a policy level, the city is trying to make sense of the legislation and get information out to the frontline workers,” says Margie McHugh of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The fact is, the system cannot turn on a dime.”
Many of Make the Road by Walking’s recent cases are related to the city’s implementation of new food stamp legislation, according to Friedman and Chatterjee, both NYU law students in their 20s. Founded in Bushwick in April 1997, the group is housed in a drafty warren of rooms in St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church. The group holds workshops on Wednesday afternoons to guide clients through the pitfalls of the welfare system.
“People who have vigilant advocates may get aid, but the process is very slow,” Chatterjee says. “People without advocates are in danger of being railroaded.”
Dora could have been one of them. She separated from her husband in the mid-1970s and has received government food assistance for much of the time since, while raising three children by herself. She also held a low-wage job at a Jamaica, Queens, doll factory.
When Dora was notified that her food stamps would be cut off, Dora’s oldest child, who works for a youth services organization in Bushwick, referred her to Make the Road by Walking. The group filed for a fair hearing with the state Department of Social Services–but Dora needed her husband’s tax returns along with her own to document a total of 10 years of work history in order to qualify for food stamps. This was no easy task. Although HRA is supposed to help Dora find the documents she needs to prove her eligibility, Maggie was the one who, after making phone calls to relatives and friends, finally located her father and obtained the records Dora needed.
On September 29, after four months without aid, Dora received $340 in back food stamps. But it took several weeks and phone calls to the welfare center before her caseworker faxed Make the Road by Walking official notification that Dora had finally been placed back on the food stamp rolls.
Such complicated cases have put a strain on neighborhood welfare advocacy groups, many of which received no extra city funding to sort through these immigrants’ complex cases with their bewildered clients. Roxana Sosa, nutrition coordinator at RAICES, an agency serving elderly Hispanic immigrants in Brooklyn, says about half of the cases the organization currently handles are related to the new food stamp laws.
“The transition has not been easy at all,” she says. “The problem with the local [food stamp] offices is that they were bombarded with information [about immigrant eligibility], and if the HRA supervisor can’t keep up, how can we expect the client to know?”
She maintains that some of HRA’s letters to immigrant households were unclear and written only in English. “When [legal residents] went into their centers, they couldn’t understand why their food stamps were being decreased,” she says. “We had to translate for them and explain what the new laws entail.”
HRA’s public affairs office failed to return repeated phone calls, but City Limits obtained several internal memos written by Burton Blaustein, deputy commissioner of income support, which portray an agency scrambling to do a massive task on a minuscule timetable. A September 2 memo indicated that centers were to designate just two days in the following week for workers to review their entire caseloads and determine food stamp eligibility for all legal resident cases. Anyone found ineligible was to be dropped by September 30, 1997.
Advocates say this wasn’t nearly enough time to do a good job. “It was unrealistic to think that implementation could happen by…even October 1,” says Liz Krueger of the Community Food Resource Center, an organization contracted by the city to, among other things, assist legal immigrants with welfare and food stamp applications. “It could take months just to fix the mistakes that have occurred since implementation began.”
The Community Food Resource Center received so many complaints that the staff took the extraordinary measure of preprinting fair hearing request forms for immigrants with food stamp problems.
BichHa Pham of the Hunger Action Network says that after the Food Assistance Program passed, her organization urged HRA to mail information to immigrants who may have fell through the cracks. “How many may be eligible for food stamps and don’t even know it?” she asks. “Their files weren’t coded to indicate [who these people might be]. They told us, ‘We’d just be guessing.’”
For people still in the system, Krueger says the city has been trying harder in recent weeks. As implementation continues, most eligible immigrants have at least begun the process of transferring from federal to state aid, she says. “We are still getting complaints, but the huge sense of volume is not in our face the same way [as when implementation began].”
For legal residents like Dora, there is an end to the bureaucratic maze, but 50,000 other able-bodied legal immigrants between 18 and 59 years old have no entitlements left to fight for, and they’re left wondering where to go for food.
For many immigrants, the only option may be to try and exchange their green cards for full-fledged citizenship, though this road has its own pitfalls. Friedman says many immigrants now feel that it is critically important to take these steps to protect their rights and retain their welfare benefits. It’s a decision even Dora is considering.
“I think things will get better if I become a citizen,” Friedman translates for her. “I’ve heard citizens are treated with more respect.”