Legal Immigrants Get the Shaft in 9th Circuit Ruling on Food Stamps

The state Department of Social and Health Services tells Seattle Weekly it isn't going to cut off food stamp benefits to immigrants just yet, even though a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling this week allows it to do so. Good thing, because the ruling reinforces a travesty.

Let's get one thing out of the way: The ruling affects legal immigrants, not illegal immigrants, as many people skimming news stories undoubtedly assume. Illegal immigrants are not, and have never been, eligible for food stamps.

Why would the government discriminate against people who are legally here? Good question, but it's one you'll have to ask former President Bill Clinton and the Congress he dealt with. In 1996, the welfare reform that Clinton supported made only certain immigrants eligible for federally-funded food stamps. Most commonly, immigrants were ruled out if they had not lived in the U.S. for five years.

Washington state came to the rescue with a state-funded food stamp program. But in 2010, as the state wrestled with ongoing budget deficits, it decided to pull the plug, affecting some 10,000 households. One of them was that of Monica Navarro Pimentel and her three children, ages 15, 6 and 2.

Interestingly, the state did not bother trying to deny that cutting off benefits to Pimentel and others like her would cause "irreparable harm." Rather, it simply asserted that it had the legal authority to do.

The 9th Circuit agreed. The state is not discriminating between different types of legal immigrants, as Pimentel claimed, according to the ruling. Rather, it's the feds who are discriminating. And according to the court, the state doesn't have a constitutional obligation to rectify that situation.

The court has a point. Unfortunately, there's little to be done about the feds' discrimination because its falls within Congress' authority to set immigration policy. So immigrants are left to rely on the state's good graces, which like most people's, dissipate when money is tight.

Shapley, who calls the plan to cut benefits a "difficult decision," says the state is holding off to see whether Pimentel will ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider.

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