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Do Immigrant Policies Affect Low-income Immigrant Participation in SNAP?

A man pushes a baby in a cart down a supermarket aisle lined with produce.

March 20, 2024

As more migrants risk their lives seeking refuge in the U.S. and face increasingly harsh border policies, not enough attention is paid to how immigrant policies affect the well-being of immigrants who have legal status in the U.S.

Federal rules allow low-income immigrants to enroll in food assistance programs (U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) under several scenarios, including if the household includes a U.S. citizen. However, it is known that eligible immigrant households under-enroll in these programs relative to eligible non-immigrant households, thereby putting immigrants and their families at greater risk for food insecurity and illness.

Eligible immigrant households may under-enroll due to policies that restrict immigrant rights and increase immigration enforcement activities, creating a culture of fear. This can lead eligible immigrant households to avoid public programs such as SNAP, out of fear that enrolling could jeopardize future legal residency status or lead to deportation for themselves or undocumented loved ones.

A team at Drexel’s School of Public Health and affiliated with the Urban Health Collaborative created immigrant policy indices from two databases. One database identified the presence of 'Sanctuary City’ policies that primarily aim to prevent immigrants from being apprehended by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Another database cataloged the presence of 18 state policies considered immigrant-inclusionary (e.g., driver’s license eligibility, access to college tuition subsidies, etc.) or exclusionary (e.g., employment E-Verify mandates, etc.).

Two recent peer-reviewed studies from UHC researchers using these data suggest that immigrant policy environments matter. One study used individual-level data collected by the U.S. Census from immigrant households, finding that the odds of enrolling in SNAP was approximately 23% higher for individuals living in jurisdictions that had policies that aimed to integrate and protect immigrants. A second study found that the proportion of Latinos enrolled in SNAP in U.S. counties was higher in counties with similarly favorable immigrant policies. Collectively, these studies suggest that low-income immigrant households enrolled in SNAP – the largest and most effective federal program to improve household food security -- at higher rates in states and counties/cities that had more favorable policies regarding immigrants.

More information about this research:

Argibay S, Auchincloss AH, Chaparro MP, Eastus A, Kravitz C and Langellier BA. Impact of County and State Immigration Policies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Enrollment among Immigrant Households. Journal of Migration and Health. 2024;Feb 29:100224.

Chaparro MP, Auchincloss AH, Argibay S, Ruggiero DA, Purtle J and Langellier BA. County- and state-level immigration policies are associated with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation among Latino households. Soc Sci Med. 2023;333:116141.