WASHINGTON, DC – Department of Agriculture personnel in the Obama administration have met with Mexican Government officials dozens of times since the president took office to promote nutrition assistance programs — notably food stamps — among Mexican Americans, Mexican nationals and migrant communities in America.
Writing in response to Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions’ July request for information about the USDA’s little known partnership with the Mexican government to educate citizen and noncitizen immigrants from Mexico about the availability of food stamps and other nutrition assistance programs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the partnership as a way to curb hunger in America — and the continuation of a program formed under the Bush administration in 2004.
“The Mexico-U.S. Partnership for Nutrition Assistance Initiative is just one of a wide range of USDA partnership activities intended to promote awareness of nutrition assistance among those who need benefits and meet all program requirements under current law.” Vilsack wrote to Sessions in a letter obtained by The Daily Caller.
Since the partnership began, Vilsack wrote, USDA personnel have met at least 151 times with officials from the Mexican government “to discuss nutrition assistance programs as well as to provide program updates.” Those instances included 91 meetings with embassy and consulate staff in 25 U.S. cities; 29 health fairs in 19 U.S. cities; and 31 roundtable discussions, conferences and forums in 20 U.S. cities.
Roughly 30 of these meetings and activities occurred under the Obama administration, Vilsack’s letter revealed.
The agriculture secretary added that the list might not be exhaustive as some of the meetings may not have been recorded.
Sessions has been the lead lawmaker pushing back against the partnership. According to the Alabama senator, the program appears to be in “plain conflict with the sound principles of federal immigration law.”
“The premise of American immigration is that those entering our country should have to work and to contribute to the financial health of the United States,” Sessions told TheDC Sunday evening. “Not only does the administration violate this principle through the partnership, but it does harm by gradually displacing the role of family and community with continual government aid. Welfare reform is guided by the moral principle that good policy helps more people live better lives.”
In his letter, Vilsack asserted that USDA does not pressure people to enroll in the program or is attempting to boost its rolls. President Obama, too, has said that “people do not come here looking for handouts.”
“We do not pressure any eligible person to accept benefits, nor is our goal to simply increase the number of program participants, but we are determined to help people in need make informed decisions about whether or not to seek assistance for which they may be eligible,” Vilsack claimed.
The mission USDA articulates on its website is to “increase participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program” — food stamps. The agency has been engaged in aggressive advertising campaigns and issuing guidance to state and local offices about how to enroll more beneficiaries.
“I share the goal stated in your letter,” Vilsack concluded in his letter to the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, “which is to help people move toward gainful employment and financial independence. At the same time, the Nation’s nutrition assistance programs have never been needed more to help struggling families until they get back on their feet. I hope that this information clarifies our efforts and my views on these vital program.” (RELATED: USDA suggests food stamp parties, games to increase participation)
But statistics in Vilsack’s letter indicate that the number of legal non-citizens participating in SNAP increased approximately 190 percent from 2001 to 2010, from 425,000 to 1.23 million legal non-citizen participants. That number rose 77 percent since the program’s inception in 2004, when it served 693,000 non-citizen participants.
USDA did not offer data for 2011 and 2012, but a Republican Budget Committee staffer told TheDC that based on the growth rate, the number of legal non-citizens participating in the food stamp program today is about 1.63 million. That’s more than double the number of legal non-citizens who participated in 2008.
“Our nation is nearing a debt crisis and yet the Obama Administration has conducted thirty activities and meetings with the Mexican government to place even more foreign nationals on American welfare,” Sessions said. ”The number of non-citizens receiving food stamp support has doubled since the president took office. Such a policy defies rational thinking during a time of weak growth, high debt, and increasing welfare dependency. President Obama will have to defend this alarming partnership to the American people.”
Vilsack stressed that illegal immigrants are barred from participating in SNAP, and that states are required to determine whether applicants are legal citizens. He added that the USDA’s Food Nutrition Services supports the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) eligibility check program.
Food stamp participation reached an all time high this summer with 46.7 million people enrolled in the program overall. Spending on SNAP has doubled in the last four years and represents USDA’s single biggest annual expenditure, according to a Bloomberg report.
“Nearly 1 in 6 people living in the US are now on food stamps,” Sessions noted. “How can the administration justify trying to increase that number through outreach on the foreign soil of fifty consulates?”
He added that the continuation of the partnership demonstrates how far the country has moved from the guiding principles of the 1996 welfare reform and said there is a need for a renewed effort to return to that vision.
Participation in nutrition assistance programs like food stamps by non-citizens does not hinder their ability to qualify for citizenship or immigration status adjustments, according to current Department of Homeland Security immigration policy.