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Help That They Can Understand

On KMEX, immigrants learn of food-stamp program. O.C. group takes things further -- and shows how to apply.

October 13, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Though it goes against the conventional wisdom of anti-illegal immigration supporters, those who enroll the poor in the federal food stamp program say they've struggled for years to get immigrant Latino families signed up.

Now a Spanish-language news report and television ad campaign have spurred thousands of immigrants in Orange County over the last several weeks to contact a nonprofit organization that offers a Spanish-language class called "Food Stamps in Four Hours."

The stream of immigrants contrasts sharply with what was going on just a few months ago when only a handful of immigrants would attend the free course.

The news report and ads were heard throughout Southern California, but those who responded in Orange County were directed to a nonprofit organization. Most other callers to the toll-free number were directed to county offices.

The Orange County strategy has been lauded throughout the state as a way to reach immigrants who are reluctant to get help from the government.

"They won't come on their own," said Jerry Sanders, food bank manager of the nonprofit Community Action Partnership of Orange County in Garden Grove. "They come from countries where they think the government isn't to be trusted. They figure there's a catch to free food."

Advocates say immigrants, if here illegally, are also worried about being deported if they apply for food stamps. Or they fear jeopardizing a pending application for residency or citizenship. Illegal immigrants can apply on behalf of their minor children here legally.

Other immigrants say they were simply embarrassed.

"The Mexican man is macho. He doesn't want to come to this country and beg," said Alfonso Chavez, the Community Action Partnership's outreach coordinator. "I tell them this is a program that will help the children. The kids are American-born, and they have a right to this program."

A Los Angeles County Department of Social Services task force is looking at ways to find eligible families to enroll. County workers have signed up families at food banks with only minor success.

"We recognize that people in Orange County are ahead of us," said task force member Bruce Rankin, the executive director of the Westside Food Bank in Los Angeles. "The rest of us in the state are looking at Orange County for ideas." Low participation, he said, "is a dilemma in the state."

The federal government estimates 60% of eligible households participate in the food stamp program nationally. In California, the participation rate drops sharply. A study of 2003 participation rates by Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research group, showed that 34% of California's working poor participated in the program that year, the third lowest percentage among the 50 states.

There are 30,000 households in Orange County that receive food stamps, federal officials said.

Sanders of the Community Action Partnership estimates more than three times that amount could qualify.

Aliso Viejo resident Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project, which fights illegal immigration, said the Orange County program encouraged illegal immigration.

These immigrants and their children "should only be given life-saving medical care," Gilchrist said.

"If we encourage illegal alien families to come forward and exploit the ... system, aren't we encouraging more illegal immigration? We have to cut these benefits off."

In 2004, Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service and the Mexican Embassy agreed to jointly disseminate brochures and create the public service announcements.

The agreement led Mexican Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro to tout the food stamp program on Univision's KMEX Channel 34 six weeks ago. The newscast included the partnership's phone number. More than 1,200 people called the partnership in the following days, Sanders said.

Then, two weeks ago, the Department of Agriculture began to air a monthlong series of ads on Spanish-language television in Southern California and three other markets in the U.S.

When Sanders first saw the Spanish-language public service announcements, he asked the government if Orange County callers could be routed to his office. That led to hundreds more inquiries. Callers, which number about 2,000 calls a day nationwide, are only routed to nonprofit organizations in seven California counties. The others are directed to government offices.

In Orange County, several of those attending a recent "Food Stamps in Four Hours" class said they were convinced it was legitimate when they saw Ortiz Haro on television.

"This program is not welfare. It won't affect your immigration status," Ortiz Haro said on television.

"The program is a right, and if we don't use it, it's a privilege that will pass you by."

About 20 people attended a "Food Stamps in Four Hours" class on a recent weekday at the El Modena Community Center in Orange.

Many of them came by a bus provided by Community Action Partnership, which picked up applicants at three locations.

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