In late September, a federal assistance program for mothers and children narrowly escaped inclusion in a controversial proposal. Despite early reports, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is not part of the Trump administration's proposed expansion of the "public charge" test, which would penalize immigrants seeking permanent status who use public benefit programs. Still, enrollment in WIC continues to decrease—and the California WIC Association does not expect this phenomenon to end anytime soon.
Fear of repercussions, though now unfounded, has prompted a 20 percent drop in WIC enrollment in at least 18 states, Politico reports. Now, WIC has taken up the fight on behalf of its participants, who often rely on other programs that will be included in the rule, such as housing subsidies: The National WIC Association released a strong statement decrying the Department of Homeland Security's stance, and staff at local California agencies have worked to reassure the hundreds of fearful families who come into clinics, returning vouchers or begging for staff to rescind their enrollment, often citing misinformation from immigration lawyers or media reports.
"We want to get the word out that WIC is not included," says Karen Farley, executive director of the California WIC Association. Even if the proposal changes, and WIC is included, the rule will not apply retroactively.
Pacific Standard spoke with Farley and Sarah Diaz, policy and media coordinator at the California WIC Association, about the challenges families that participate in WIC are facing under the Trump administration's immigration crackdown.
Now that the proposed Trump administration rule expanding the public charge test has been released, and WIC is not included, what are your biggest takeaways?
Diaz: We're of course glad that is WIC not included and that dependent children were not included, but it is still having a chilling effect on participation in WIC. We don't really have data yet, because that's hard data to capture, but we have a lot of WIC directors telling us, even just in the last six months—even more so in the last week or so—about participants wanting to be taken out of the WIC system and not wanting to participate because they're afraid.
Could you explain more about the "chilling effect"? Have you experienced a drop in participation like this before?
Diaz: WIC participation has been declining for a number of years now, gradually, and after the 2016 election, there were some significant drops. It's hard to tell what it’s related to, but the trend is definitely downward.
Farley: Over time we will expect the decline to shift and the coverage rate to hopefully go back up. But when the election happened—actually, it was the first travel ban, and listening to [developments with] the farm bill, when it was actively being discussed—the threat is against not only immigrants, but low-income people. It's not a warm climate for getting benefits, so there's a lot of fear, and there can be confusion. Each of these announcements brings another wave of messaging.
The most awful thing is that people live in fear. What's devastating is that WIC has data to show the impact on our communities, whether it's sales in the communities or groceries or jobs at [grocery stores], or the fact that there's fewer pre-term births—all the health outcomes that could swing backwards when people don't use WIC or don't use their health-care provider because they're concerned about things that are included in the public charge. That's going to be a cost to all of us. Families are going to take a personal hit; they're living in fear. We have problems to take care of that we had already figured out.
What's the biggest challenge with messaging, now that the draft rule has been released?
Diaz: One challenge is messaging in such a way that people trust and believe it—even participants who know right now that WIC is not a public charge program and is not included in the draft proposal. I was just speaking to one [mother] yesterday, and she doesn't feel comfortable enrolling in WIC. People are feeling very unsafe. Getting people to trust that it is safe—that is going to be a challenge.
Farley: There are a lot of stories in the local agencies where families come in and say their attorney told them that WIC is included—this has been happening with the travel ban. There's just misinformation, along with fear of being in somebody's electronic system, or fear of what could happen.
Now that the proposed rule has been released, and does not include WIC, do you expect the "chilling effect" to decrease?
Diaz: No. I don't expect it decrease. Because of the increased media coverage, I expect it to increase.
How do you plan to increase participation?
Farley: We participate in the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition. That is important because we have organizations that are able to share accurate and timely information. We're a state association, we're not an immigration organization, so it's important that people lock arms and combine their expertise and knowledge to help the families, no matter what program is under threat. That solidarity is super important to our community.
In the National WIC Association statement after the rule was released, WIC said, "We intend to share our strong opposition and full views with DHS in our public comments." How are you preparing to fight back on this?
Farley: In the public comment period, we'll be working with the local agencies and any of our partners who can comment. WIC has a pretty strong history of collecting comments, although it's usually for something positive. This will be a tougher ask because of the risk that's involved. Participants are somewhat protected in the local agencies for really good reason, so it's not like you can go in there and start asking questions.
Aside from the public charge rule, what about immigrant families' other concerns, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on WIC facilities—how are they protected from that?
Farley: There are certain protocols that ICE is supposed to follow and certain documents that are [legitimate]. To be clear, U.S. Department of Agriculture funds the California Department of Public Health for the whole state's WIC services, and the CDPH has contracts with 83 local agencies. What we've heard is most of the local agencies have had communications with their parent agencies about what could actually happen on the facility grounds [in terms of enforcement raids].
Diaz: As far as we've known, ICE has never gone to a WIC site in California, but after we heard about people being targeted at schools and hospitals, WIC got anxious about our role in this.
Farley: All kinds of organizations are asking those questions, because nobody really knows.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and housing subsidies are still included in the public charge test. What will be the impact on families that use these programs?
Diaz: A lot of the families that are using WIC also use SNAP and Medi-Cal. Just because dependent children aren't included [in the public charge test] doesn't mean families won't suffer, because children and parents are inextricably linked. With SNAP, if parents are afraid, or don't feel they can enroll themselves, they might feel they can't enroll their children [either]. You can't just say it's only the parents who are going to have these hardships and the children aren't; that's not the way families work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.