October 11, 2011

No easy access to food stamps for migrant workers

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By Sean Powers/Illinois Public Media — Every year, thousands of migrant workers come to Illinois to detassel corn and harvest crops. Often times they do not make enough money to feed themselves and their families. Language barriers are keeping these farm workers from getting the help they need.

Back in the 1980’s, there was a lawsuit filed alleging that Illinois didn’t provide adequate bilingual services to people applying for food stamps. That lawsuit led to a court order known as the Quinones Consent Decree. To settle the lawsuit, the state agreed to increase interpreter and translation services in public aid offices where there was a high concentration of Spanish speakers. It also allowed the state to contract with the Illinois Migrant Council to help farmworkers sign up for food stamps.

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The Illinois Migrant Council currently gets about $40,500 from the Illinois Department of Human Services to maintain that program, but Eloy Salazar, the organization’s executive director, said that’s not enough.

“The need for the program has increased, and the funding has not kept up pace with that,” Salazar said. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to provide the kind of services that we need to provide because of inflation, cost of travel for the people that we hire, and that money is just not going far enough.”

The council has cut the program down to two food stamp outreach coordinators in the state – one of whom is Magdalena Lopez.

Lopez’s job takes her to six east central Illinois counties from Kankakee to Mattoon. Speaking at the end of August half-way through the migrant farm labor season, Lopez said she had already filled out more than 800 food stamp applications.

“When they’re here, I’m here to work,” Lopez said. “I’m here till all hours of the afternoon and weekends in order for them to do it on time.”

One of the workers who waited to see her outside of an apartment complex on Urbana’s east side was Rosando Islas, who came to Champaign County from Texas to work for Pioneer Hi-Bred.

Islas can go the local DHS office in Champaign to sign up for food stamps where there are people who can help him in Spanish. But instead he chooses to go to Lopez, in whom he has a high level of confidence that he said he cannot get anywhere else. (See an interactive graphic)

“I like doing it here because it’s more one-on-one, everyone is more understanding of the relationship we have with her,” he said. “I can confide in her knowing that she does her job really well.”

Lopez also met with Aurora Garcia, who works for Pioneer. Garcia has been coming back and forth to Champaign County for the last 22 years from Texas. She typically signs up for food stamps through Lopez. But the day before she met with Lopez at the end of August, she tried to sign up at Champaign’s DHS office. While the office is supposed to be staffed with permanent bilingual employees, Garcia said when she got there; no one was available to help.

“I went to DHS, and all they did was just give me the paperwork,” Garcia said. “They didn’t ask me to wait. They didn’t tell me to look for somebody. I was a little bit angry. They didn’t ask for my name. I asked for Magdalena, and they didn’t answer any questions.”

Lopez said she often hears stories from migrant workers who have a bad experience at a DHS office because of language barriers, confusion by people working at the front desk, or long waits. She said a group of about 40 migrants were recently turned away from the Coles County DHS office because a person who worked there said no one who spoke Spanish was available to help. That office, like the one in Champaign, does have permanent bilingual staff.

“They went back again, and the same thing happened,” Lopez explained. “Then they called me and they wanted to know if the people were going to go back. I said they’re probably not going to go back. She says, ‘Well, we gave them applications.’ I said, ‘Yes, but some of them don’t know how to write.'”

The DHS’ Director of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, Nelida Smyser-Deleon, said no one should be turned away because of their language or background. Smyser-Deleon’s office oversees the Quinones Consent Decree, the court order that allowed the state to boost its interpreter and translation services in offices that handle food stamp applications. Smyser-Deleon said even if an office isn’t fully staffed with permanent bilingual employees, people who work at the front desk should at least be familiar with how to help a non-English speaker.

“They have a document in front of them, like ‘¿Habla Español?'” she said. “You know key things that they can ask the individual, and then have them point to the language. Then they go ahead and look for a bilingual person who speaks that language and bring them up to the front.”

Smyser-Deleon said each office also has instructional posters on the walls in Spanish and English with information about food stamp rights, migrant counties, and interpreter services.

“Those are posters that are mandated through the Quinones Consent Decree that should be in every office,” she said.

About 70 percent of the DHS offices that handle food stamp applications lack permanent bilingual staff across 24 counties where at least 1 in 5 Hispanics live below the poverty line and where at least 1 in 5 aren’t proficient in English, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The state said at this point, it’s unable to pump more money into the Illinois Migrant Council’s food stamp outreach efforts because of budgetary reasons.

One option, though, for the migrant council is to start using its own funds to support the program rather than relying on the state. If that were to happen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal food stamp program, said it could reimburse the council for half of what it puts into outreach.

Meanwhile, food banks, like those in McLean and Champaign Counties, are making efforts to fill the gap with their own food stamp outreach coordinators. But like the Illinois Department of Human Services, they suffer from a lack of Spanish speaking workers on the ground.

Interactive graphic:

About 70 percent of the D-H-S offices that handle food stamp applications lack permanent bilingual staff across 24 counties where at least 1 in 5 Hispanics live below the poverty line and where at least  1 in 5 aren’t proficient in English, according to Census Bureau estimates. 

The graphic below demonstrates the Illinois counties downstate that have food stamp offices and where at least one in five Hispanics live below the poverty line and where at least one in five aren’t proficient in English.

Click on the graphic to start.

Toggle the “bubble size” button at the bottom of the graphic to see the percentages of those Hispanics that aren’t proficient in English or to see the percentages that live below the federal poverty line.

The bubbles that are colored pale purple – means those county food stamp offices without permanent bilingual staff and the bubbles that are colored dark purple means those counties with permanent bilingual staff.

Hold your cursor over each county to see percentages for each county.

Source: 2005-2009 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau; Illinois State Department of Human Services

Graphic by: Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess.org and Sean Powers/Illinois Public Media