Testimony of Joel Berg, Hearing Before The New York City Council Immigration Committee


Testimony of Joel Berg, Chief Executive Officer
Hunger Free America
Hearing Before The New York City Council Immigration Committee
Oversight: The Impact of New Immigration Enforcement Tactics on Access to Justice and Services.
March 15th, 2017

My name is Joel Berg, and I am the Chief Executive Office of Hunger Free America. Formerly called the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, Hunger Free America changed its name in 2016 to better reflect the broad scope of our national work. This was also accompanied with intensifying our local efforts under the new name, Hunger Free New York City. I would like to thank Chairman Menchaca and the rest of the Committee for your work, and especially for the opportunity to testify today before the Council’s Committee on Immigration.

I would like to start by noting that on February 25, 1923, my mother, Bella , two months old, arrived at Ellis Island on the S.S. Minnekahda, along with her two parents, Etel and Levi.  My father’s two parents were also immigrants from Eastern Europe. While none of them were legally classified as refugees, they were clearly fleeing the anti-Semitic violence and destitution so common in their homelands. Odds are, had they not escaped, they would have been killed during the Holocaust or in a pogrom, as were many other members of my family who stayed. Thus I, and tens of millions of fellow descendants of immigrants, literally owe our lives to welcoming US immigration policies when our families arrived. I say to Americans who are children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren of immigrants (as most Americans are), and somehow oppose innocent refugees entering our nation, I urge you to reflectively contemplate whether you may be hypocritical.

Approximately 1.4 million New York City residents lived in homes experiencing food insecurity between 2013-2015. This includes one in five children in the city and one in eight seniors.   Many New Yorkers facing hunger are immigrants, although immigrants who become naturalized citizens actually have lower poverty rates and higher incomes – and thus, less hunger – than native-born Americans.

An improving economy has, at least in part, resulted in fewer households participating in SNAP; however, many families are still left behind. As of January, New York City had approximately 1.69 million SNAP participants, with an additional half a million people eligible but not participating. Hunger Free NYC’s Annual Hunger Survey has shown seven consecutive years of growing demand at emergency food programs such as food pantries and soup kitchens, most recently growing by 9% in 2016 alone. Access to government programs such as SNAP, as well as to emergency food programs, is vital to ensuring that New Yorkers have access to sufficient, nutritious food.

While Federal courts litigate the constitutionality of the President’s Executive Orders[1][2] regarding immigration and associated enforcement activities, the reality is that they have already exacted a significant human toll on families in New York City. According to a 2013 New York City Department of City Planning report, approximately six in ten New Yorkers are immigrants or the children of immigrants.[3] Given this demographic reality, it is no surprise that New York City is feeling the chilling effect of the new Administration’s efforts.

Through Hunger Free New York City’s benefits outreach and Food Action Board organizing, we have received calls from families deciding to discontinue their participation in public benefits to which citizen members of their household are entitled because of fear of immigration enforcement activity. We have also heard stories on the ground about families living in fear at the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, as well as fear of President Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders.

One family that spoke to us has three people, two adults and one child, all of whom have been Legal Permanent Residents for over five years. Only two of the household’s members are eligible for SNAP, as one of the adults is a full time college student. Since October of last year, they have received $357 a month in SNAP benefits, but they have asked to be taken off of SNAP because of fears that it will limit their ability to become U.S. Citizens.

Another undocumented female client, whose household has two citizen children, decided to let her $357 of monthly SNAP benefits, as well as her WIC and Medicaid benefits, expire because of her fears that those receiving public benefits would be among those first targeted for deportation. While they have occasionally gone to food pantries, even while on SNAP, her fear is that they have tracked the number of times she has visited, and that such information could also be used against her. Her solution to the loss of SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid benefits is to embark on part-time work, but with a four year old who is not yet in school, looming childcare costs could make that proposition all the more insurmountable.

There has been at least once confirmed case of ICE agents in Virginia targeting a homeless shelter. In New York City, there have been unconfirmed reports of roving bands of ICE agents outside of emergency food programs and other places in the community, including low-wage, hourly workplaces. These stories are indicative of the fears that the Trump Administration have, either intentionally or otherwise, stoked among the immigrant community in New York City and the country as a whole.

The reality is that under current law and regulation, only individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), extensive cash aid, and Medicaid institutional care are eligible for deportation or denial of Legal Permanent Resident (or other legal statuses) as a result of receiving public benefits. [4] A broad range of public benefits for low-income individuals and families are exempted, including all forms of nutrition assistance, such as SNAP, WIC, school nutrition programs, and emergency food programs. Additionally, ICE policy memos from the Obama Administration direct ICE agents to avoid enforcement activities at “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals, places of worship (where some food pantries are located), or the site of a protest.[5]

However, the Administration’s current Executive Orders and enforcement activities provide a chilling precedent and a bellwether to their future actions. The Council should do everything in its power to ensure that New Yorkers who are in households with immigrants of any status understand their rights under the current law, as well as protect their ability to secure the American Dream through work and receiving the public benefits to which they are legally entitled. We must intensify our efforts to lobby our federal elected officials to protect, rather than harm, immigrants.

If the members of this Committee are interested in learning more through interacting with our clients and citizen advocates, we look forward to connecting you with those resources.


[1] Exec. Order No 13767, 3 C.F.R. 8793-8797.  https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2017-01-30/pdf/2017-02095.pdf

[2] Exec. Order No 13768, 3 C.F.R. 8799-8803. https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2017-01-30/pdf/2017-02102.pdf

[3] New York City Department of Planning. The Newest New Yorkers—2013 Edition. http://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/newest-new-yorkers-2013.page

[4] 64 C.F.R. 28689

[5] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Policy Number 10029.2. https://www.ice.gov/doclib/ero-outreach/pdf/10029.2-policy.pdf