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Feeding Immigrants and Their Children: A Constitutional Issue

February 17, 2011

As states struggle to balance their budgets, they are making drastic cuts to important social programs. One example is currently happening in Washington state.

On September 13, 2010, Governor Gregoire issued an Executive Order mandating a 6.3% reduction to general fund state appropriations. In light of this Order, the Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”) thought it could balance its budget by targeting one of its most vulnerable groups: immigrants and their families. DSHS announced it would repeal Washington’s Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants (“FAP”).

Monica Navarro Pimentel was granted legal status under the Violence Against Women Act and is a mother of three children–two are U.S. citizens. Ms. Pimentel receives both federally funded food assistance and state assistance under FAP. She learned on January 20, 2011 that as of February 1st her family’s food benefits would be reduced from $647 to $341 per month due to the elimination of FAP.

Ms. Pimentel moved for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against DSHS. She brought this suit on behalf of herself and Washington state residents who are currently receiving, or will receive, state funded food benefits. At the heart of this matter is the question about state power: whether Washington may deny benefits to its residents based on citizenship.

A successful motion for injunctive relief requires that the plaintiff establish 1) a likelihood of success on the merits; 2) that she is likely to suffer irreparable harm; and 3) that the balance of equities tips in her favor and that the injunction is in the public interest.

Establishing a likelihood of success on the merits was Ms. Pimentel’s greatest hurdle. She had to demonstrate that by terminating her state food benefits, the state violated her right to Equal Protection and Due Process.

Equal Protection is part of the Fourteenth Amendment and it states that “no state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Under limited circumstances the government may discriminate, but only for a legitimate state purpose. Federal classifications based on alienage are subject to rational basis review, but state classifications are subject to strict scrutiny—the highest level of review.  Here, the Court found that the state’s budgetary considerations were not a sufficiently compelling reason to discriminate against immigrants.

Due Process is a constitutional principle that protects an individual’s procedural and substantive rights. The Court found that DSHS’ notice likely violated Due Process because it failed to identify the family members who were ineligible for state assistance based on their citizenship status, it failed to indicate how DSHS arrived at that determination or how it calculated the reduction in payment, and it failed to provide recipients with an administrative rights hearing.

Ms. Pimentel also satisfied the second and third elements for injunctive relief. She demonstrated that she and her family were in danger of irreparable harm, since as a single mother she relies on food stamp benefits while she applies for work authorization. In balancing the Plaintiff’s interest and the state’s interest, the Court found it clear that “[w]hile the public’s interest is served by conserving the resources of the state, the need to the Plaintiff and class members is extreme and substantial. Plaintiff’s and classes’ suffering ‘is far more compelling than the possibility of some administrative inconvenience or monetary loss to the government.’”

The Court granted Ms. Pimentel’s temporary restraining order and ordered the Defendant not to terminate or reduce state food assistance because of lack of funding.

While this is a victory for Ms. Pimentel’s family, this is an even greater victory for the poor children of Washington. According to a Cornell study, “food insecurity during the childhood years is associated with health and nutrition complications, such as iron deficiency, undernutrition, and lack of dietary balance.” However, this case is far from over; the restraining order and preliminary injunctions are only temporary. It will take some time before the court makes a final determination, but for now fewer children of immigrants will go hungry. In the mean time, DHSH should find ways to make appropriate budget cuts that do not disproportionally impact already vulnerable groups.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2011 2:17 am

    Thanks for the recap of this important case. I hope that WA finds ways to balance the budget without undercutting programs for its neediest families — $341 a month to feed three kids is ridiculous!

  2. jorge pena permalink
    February 26, 2013 1:11 pm

    Necesito hablar con la senora pimentel please. Yo soy de guadalajara jalisco.

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