Sessions presses USDA for more info on non-citizen food stamp use, participation rates

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After an effort to defund the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food stamp outreach partnership with the Mexican government went down in committee Thursday, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions continued to press the agency for more information about non-citizen participation in the food stamp program.

In a Friday letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack obtained by The Daily Caller, Sessions — who has been exchanging letters with Vilsack about USDA’s partnership with Mexico since last summer — requested additional information about the people the USDA has been enrolling in nutrition assistance programs and the agency’s program goals.

Last month, in a letter recently obtained by TheDC, Vilsack revealed that the share of overall Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp, benefits going to legal non-citizens has accounted for between 3.5–4.0 percent of the total caseload since 2004.

The agriculture secretary further addressed the fact that those non-citizens who enroll in SNAP are not considered to be government-reliant under the current policies governing immigrant inadmissibility under the public charge statue. He additionally noted that the agency has provided guidance to this effect — pointing to a February 2010 letter from USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon to all state commissioners.

“USCIS agency guidance clearly stipulates that certain public benefits are not subject to public charge determinations, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits,” Concannon wrote, bolding portions of the letter for emphasis.

“The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has long supported USCIS’ policy on public charge and encourages States administering SNAP benefits to make the policy well known in the immigrant communities in your State.”

Sessions’ Friday letter pressed Vilsack on the cumulative cost of nutrition assistance for non-citizens and the cost of the total amount spent on nutrition assistance benefits for both citizen and non-citizen immigrants, in order to get a clearer picture of the cost associated with the current public charge policy.

The Alabama senator also requested information about possible loopholes for illegal immigrants to partake in SNAP benefits.

“You emphasized that food stamp eligibility ‘has never been extended’ to illegal aliens. However, as you know, illegal immigrants can apply for food stamp benefits on behalf of eligible members of their households,” he wrote.

“To the extent that illegal immigrants do not have to expend their own resources to purchase food on behalf of others, they obviously benefit from that taxpayer-funded assistance. Does your Department have any estimates of total SNAP benefits provided to households headed by an illegal immigrant on behalf of eligible dependents?” Sessions asked, going on to request similar information on legal immigrants with illegal dependents.

In his February response to Session’s October oversight request, Vilsack wrote that the agency has a goal of enrolling 75 percent of SNAP-eligible people by 2015.

“With respect to SNAP participation rates, the most recent available data shows that in 2010, an average of 51 million individuals were eligible for benefits each month, and 38 million received them, resulting in a participation rate of 75 percent among all SNAP-eligible individuals in that year,” he wrote.

“USDA’s strategic plan includes a goal to reach 75 percent of the SNAP-eligible population by 2015 — the same rate reached in 2010.”

A record 47,791,996 people were enrolled in the program in December, the most recent data available.

Sessions’ Friday letter went on to request information on how many Americans are currently eligible for food stamps.

“You stated that 75 percent of SNAP-eligible individuals received the benefit in 2010,” the letter read. “With almost one in six Americans currently receiving food stamps, do you estimate the participation rate is still roughly 75 percent? In other words, are one in four Americans currently eligible for food stamp benefits?”

In his October letter to Vilsack, Sessions also requested that the agency halt all SNAP outreach efforts that conflict with an earlier Vilsack assertion that the agency does “not pressure any eligible person to accept benefits, nor is our goal to simply increase the number of program participants.”

Sessions cited as examples a promotional guide provided to USDA recruiters to “overcome the word ‘no,’” and another that claims SNAP helps the economy. He also pointed to an award the USDA gave a recruitment worker for solutions to overcoming “mountain pride,” or the desire by some who are eligible for assistance to remain self-reliant.

In his February letter, Vilsack did not address whether or not he would eliminate such materials. He did, however, offer some additional information about the meetings USDA personnel have had with the Mexican government as part of their outreach partnership.

Reiterating that 80 percent of the USDA’s activities with Mexico occurred under the Bush administration — which started the partnership in 2004 — Vilsack wrote that since the beginning of 2009, USDA personnel have engaged in three health fairs, 18 meetings, and seven forums with Mexican embassy officials and consulate staff, for a total of 28 encounters.

TheDC previously reported that USDA personnel under the Obama administration met with Mexican representatives roughly 30 times, out of approximately 151 times since 2004.

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