USDA meets with Mexico, ‘slow-walking’ Congress on food stamp outreach to immigrants

Caroline May | Reporter

While it is already known that personnel from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) met with Mexican embassy officials this year to discuss nutrition assistance outreach efforts to immigrants, the agency is “slow-walking” a U.S. Senate effort to obtain information about the USDA’s partnership with Mexico to get more people enrolled in nutrition assistance programs.

According to both the USDA and the Mexican embassy, USDA personnel meet “periodically” with officials from the Mexican embassy to discuss nutrition “assistance and education” pertaining to 15 domestic nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps.

The most recent meeting was in February, according to Mexican embassy spokesman Ricardo Alday.

Neither the Mexican embassy nor the USDA have revealed the content of these meetings.

“As a matter of practice we do not discuss the content of private meetings and regular government-to-government consultations in or with the media,” Alday wrote in an email to The Daily Caller.

Last week, TheDC revealed that since 2004 the USDA and Mexico have been involved in a partnership to promote American food assistance programs, including food stamps, among Mexican Americans, Mexican nationals and migrant communities.

“USDA and the government of Mexico have entered into a partnership to help educate eligible Mexican nationals living in the United States about available nutrition assistance,” the USDA summarizes on their “Reaching Low-Income Hispanics With Nutrition Assistance” web page. “Mexico will help disseminate this information through its embassy and network of approximately 50 consular offices.”

Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, formally pressed Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for more documents and information about the partnership “without delay” on July 18.

In his letter to Vilsack, Sessions requested the Memorandums of Understanding between USDA and the Mexican Government regarding the nutrition assistance programs; a list of all meetings or other activities involving USDA and the Mexican government, as well as outreach materials distributed or displayed to increase enrollment; and any internal documents from USDA to the Mexican government dealing with assistance enrollment.

The senator further asked whether outreach materials are being distributed across the border; if people are filling out applications inside consulate offices; the number of non-citizen immigrants that have been enrolled in SNAP over the last decade; and whether the agency supports uniform implementation of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program to ensure that illegals are not illegally obtaining food stamps.

On Wednesday, the agency responded, just barely meeting two of his demands, providing a Memorandum of Understanding with Mexico and a standard information packet of brochures about the nutrition assistance programs that are provided to Mexican consulates for outreach.

In his response letter to Sessions on Wednesday Vilsack noted the importance of SNAP in the current economy and added that the agency is in the process of “compiling the most comprehensive response” to the rest of Sessions requests. He provided no timeline for when the request would be fulfilled.

“Given the significant economic dislocation of recent years, SNAP remains a critical tool to help many families put food on the table until they get back on their feet,” Vilsack wrote. “SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs have never been more urgently needed than they are now. We are committed to making nutrition benefits available to all those who need them and are legally eligible to receive them.”

According to Sessions, however, the agency is “slow-walking” his request.

“The response is not adequate, and I fully expect more information and am distressed that some of this information should have been readily available and easy to submit already,” Sessions said in a Wednesday interview with TheDC.

Sessions added that it is interesting Vilsack did not offer a strong defense of the partnership in his response.

“I think that’s very notable since there was no defense in the whole idea of pushing American welfare programs in foreign consular offices,” Sessions said of Vilsack’s letter. “That goes against one of the fundamentals of our immigration policy, which is if people come to our country, they should have a sponsor or a job and not immediately go on support.”

When asked by TheDC when the agency will meet Session’s full request, USDA representative Alyn G. Kiel reiterated that the agency would respond when they are able.

“As stated in the letter, the request from Senator Sessions’ office requires a review of records dating back eight years,” Kiel wrote in an email to TheDC. “We are in the process of compiling the information and will respond as soon as we are able.”

Sessions intends to continue to push the agency for all the documents he requested and eventually hopes to bring about a real debate on the roll and functionality of all 80 welfare programs in America.

“I think it’s important for the American people to know that the United States Department of Agriculture is refusing to provide information on even their most recent meetings with Mexican officials on this subject, as late as February,” Sessions concluded. “I think the Department of Agriculture is not — they serve the American people and if the American people are providing the money that they’re dispersing and the American people ought to be entitled to know precisely how they’re administering and distributing these taxpayer funded benefits.”

Read the U.S.-Mexico partnership here:

Mexico-U.S. Partnership for Nutrition Assitance

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