Struggling to feed her three children, Malena saw no other option but to migrate from Mexico to southern California in 2006. She eventually found work as a housekeeper, clocking more than 70 hours per week. With low wages and limited time to shop for food, Malena struggled to send money to support her children back in Mexico while also feeding herself and the young daughter who was living with her in the United States. But because of her undocumented status, she had been dissuaded by others in her social circle from applying for support through government programs and was too afraid to seek aid through local programs after hearing rumors that la migra—or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—was surveilling these programs.
Juana, who migrated to Vermont from Chiapas, Mexico, experienced food insecurity there that felt like an extension of the hunger she’d faced while growing up. The mother of four, whose younger two children were born in the U.S., worked in the dairy industry in an attempt to support her family on both sides of the border. And although she had newfound earning potential in Vermont, Juana felt encerrado (trapped) in her home, only occasionally going out for groceries and other basic needs.
Immigrants like Melena and Juana tend to experience a unique brand of food insecurity. As anthropologists working primarily with Mexican and Central American households and communities in the border states of California, Arizona, and Vermont over the past decade, we have documented the economic, political, social, environmental, and health dimensions of food insecurity and the particular ways in which immigrants are affected.
Prior to the pandemic, households in our research communities were already experiencing heightened levels of food insecurity as a result of low wages, lack of affordable foods, physical and social isolation, and widespread distrust of many of the programs designed to help alleviate food insecurity. Border patrol checkpoints, surveillance by ICE, and ongoing detentions and deportations are a daily reality both in border areas and in places far from the border, and often inhibit immigrant households from accessing the programs for which they are eligible. These factors often create hostile environments and can pose significant barriers when it comes to accessing food and other basic needs.
Rates of food insecurity have risen significantly across the U.S. during the pandemic, thanks to widespread unemployment and lack of a coordinated government response. Findings from one study by the National Food Access and COVID Research Team suggested that household food insecurity increased by one-third between March and November of 2020.
That rise is reflected in many immigrant communities, where many people have lost jobs as domestic helpers, caregivers, and service workers in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and migrant farmworkers have faced an ongoing risk of contracting the virus and challenges accessing vaccines.
To complicate matters, many government responses have intentionally excluded immigrant populations from obtaining much needed forms of pandemic relief. Vermont is an exception; the state recently began offering stimulus funds distributed to undocumented workers who had been excluded from the first round of federal stimulus payments.
Immigrants without U.S. citizenship or formal immigration status also face a number of barriers in accessing government programs designed to alleviate food insecurity. While immigrant families with U.S.-born children may technically qualify for support for their children through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our research has shown that many do not apply.
According to the people we’ve interviewed, there are many reasons to avoid these programs. Some people don’t have a clear understanding of the eligibility criteria, some associate receiving government support with stigma and shame, and others fear the possibility of becoming a public charge. The Trump administration’s move to reinstate of the so-called public charge rule—which barred immigrants who “unduly rely on public assistance” from a path to legal status or citizenship—intensified existing distrust among immigrants toward government programs and created a “chilling effect” across many human and social service sectors. Although the rule has recently been rescinded, the fear remains within immigrant communities.