Senator says food stamp partnership with Mexico 'pressuring' immigrants to enroll

The Mexican government has been distributing information about the U.S. food stamp program through its embassy and dozens of consular offices, a partnership that one Republican senator says is the latest example of an "aggressive" push to "expand enrollment regardless of need."

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, raised concerns about the program in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack -- one week after he complained about a Spanish-language ad campaign encouraging residents to go on food stamps.

The USDA ended the campaign following criticism, but Sessions warned in his letter that the U.S.-Mexico partnership is a symptom of the same approach.

His concern -- that Mexican immigrants are being guided toward government assistance instead of "gainful employment."

"It has become increasingly clear that the mission of the food stamp program has moved from targeted welfare assistance for those in need into an aggressive drive to expand enrollment regardless of need," he wrote.

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Both the Spanish-language ad campaign and the U.S.-Mexico partnership were launched under the George W. Bush administration. The partnership dates back to 2004 -- it was signed between then-Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Mexico's foreign affairs secretary at the time. The USDA says on its website that it is meant to "educate eligible Mexican nationals living in the United States about available nutrition assistance." To do that, Mexico distributes materials through its embassy and 50 consular offices.

The USDA stressed Thursday that consulates "within the United States" distribute the information about eligibility criteria, as some Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals might not know that information.

"Congress has directed USDA to perform outreach to eligible populations who may be in need of nutrition assistance to help reduce hunger in America," the department said in a statement Thursday. "To that end, the partnership with the Mexican embassy was established in 2004. USDA does not perform outreach to immigrants that are undocumented, and therefore not eligible for (the program)."

The USDA has made a special effort to target Hispanic families. According to the USDA, Hispanic households represent more than a quarter of eligible residents who don't enroll in the food stamp program.

Still, roughly 46 million people in America are on food stamps -- known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- and Sessions has argued that the government should not be pressuring more people to enroll.

In his letter, he claimed the USDA has not responded to earlier requests for information about the U.S.-Mexico partnership and asked for a response "without delay." He asked whether the Mexican government was distributing materials on the U.S. program in its own borders, and asked for copies of the literature.

"It is a sound principle of immigration policy that those who come to America be able to take care of themselves financially," he wrote. "This 'partnership' and related consulate activity appears to assume that principle is no longer in effect."

He said the "compassionate policy" would be to help move people "from welfare to gainful employment" rather than "pressuring" them onto food stamps.

Sessions earlier raised this concern after reviewing a USDA radio ad miniseries called "Hope Park." In it, the characters were shown persistently trying to convince a character named "Diana" to go on food stamps even though her husband works and she doesn't think she needs it.

The USDA, though, ended the ads.

"The American people support helping those in need, but they want to know their tax dollars are being spent wisely. Many of the PSAs and ads on the agency's website were posted nearly four years ago and some of the content in these advertisements does not meet the standards of what I consider to be appropriate outreach," Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said in a statement last week. "To that end, I have instructed the agency to remove these materials from our website and to cease future production of advertisements. These funds could be better invested in improving our oversight of this critically important program and that is exactly what I intend to do moving forward."

The department stresses that illegal immigrants still are not eligible to receive SNAP benefits. Sessions, though, noted a regulation that allows illegal immigrants to obtain the benefits not for themselves, but other "eligible" members of their household.