Is Obama giving food stamps to Mexicans?

Two Republican senators and Fox News think so, but spoiler alert: Not really

Topics: Immigration, Food Stamps,

Is Obama giving food stamps to Mexicans? (Credit: Graphic design via Shutterstock/Salon)

If you were to design the Platonic Ideal of a right-wing meme in the Obama era, it might go something like this: “The Obama administration has entered into an agreement with the government of Mexico to give food stamps to Mexican immigrants … the second you arrive here from Mexico.”

Food stamps! For immigrants — possibly illegal ones! — from Mexico! It’s a veritable orchestra of dog whistles. That was Daily Caller founder Tucker Carlson speaking with Laura Ingraham Tuesday, but he’s hardly alone. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe told NewsMax this week of undocumented immigrants, “As long as we supply their demand here in this country, they’re going to figure out a way to get through. And I’m talking about with the food stamps.”

“In Mexico, there is no welfare. No food stamps. Now, a lot of them — Mexicans — want to come here,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said Monday. (Mexico actually has an expansive welfare state, including universal healthcare rights, social security and food assistance programs, though actual access is substantially lower than what’s technically on the books.)

Brian Kilmeade brought the outrage early one morning last month to Fox and Friends, noting that “while the sequester has hit and furloughs are going to happen, the USDA is promoting food stamps in Mexico.” Co-host Steve Doocy chimed in: “What a good reason to come to the United States — they get food stamps.”

So is the Obama administration luring immigrants to the U.S. with the promise of a cushy $33.35 a week in food assistance? The short answer is no. The long answer is that the program was actually started by Bush and that one has to be in the country legally for five years before even qualifying for food stamps.

But first back to the myth. No one has done more to advance it than Sen. Jeff Sessions, a leading immigration hard-liner in the Senate, who began hectoring the USDA last summer for more information on the program.

“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,” Sessions wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in July of last year, suggesting the administration was “pressuring” Mexican immigrants to join the rolls.

You Might Also Like

Naturally, conservative media took the ball and ran with it. The Drudge Report devoted its big banner to the headline: “US Partners with Mexico to Boost Food Stamps Rolls.” Fox News and conservative blogs covered the scandal extensively for several months as Sessions and Vilsack exchanged more letters, but the issue eventually died out late last year.

That is, until immigration came back on the agenda this year. In mid-March, Sessions tried to defund “this controversial promotion campaign,” but Democrats blocked the move on Sessions’ Budget Committee. Now, conservatives can attack not only the program, but Democrats for defending it.

So what’s actually going on here?

Here’s what Tucker Carlson et al. get right: The USDA provides information about enrolling in the program at Mexican consulates. Here’s what they get wrong: everything else.

First of all, the program was actually started by George W. Bush in 2004, not Obama. Here’s then-Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announcing the new program in July of 2004:

Many Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals working within the United States have limited awareness of eligibility for Food Stamps and other nutrition programs such as Women, Infants and Children program and school meals. Additional barriers such as the language heightens the need for specialized outreach. The objectives under this agreement include new partnerships, communications outreach in both English and Spanish, and other activities to educate eligible populations.

Secondly, the program doesn’t actually provide food stamps to immigrants — that too was a product of a Bush-era Farm Bill — but merely information. And it does this not in Mexico, as some claim, but at the country’s 45 consulates across the U.S., which Veneman called “an ideal network to help with outreach for USDA nutrition programs.”

What this entails is educating consulate staff about the program (hence binational meetings on the program) and making sure brochure racks are adequately supplied with literature on the program, a USDA official, who asked not to be named because of the political delicacy of the issue, told Salon. The USDA does exactly the same thing with local charities, faith organizations and other places they might reach vulnerable populations, the official said.

Third, you can’t even qualify for food stamps as a non-citizen until you’ve been in the country legally for five years. “Undocumented workers are in no way eligible,” Melissa Boteach, who studies poverty at the Center for American Progress, told Salon.

Indeed, official USDA guidance notes, “SNAP eligibility has never been extended to undocumented non-citizens.” An immigrant hoping to take advantage of American food stamps would have to get a green card, move here, wait five years, and then cash in. It’s not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme.

There are some exceptions for children and the infirm, but fewer than 4 percent of food stamp users are non-citizen legal immigrants.

Why would the U.S. want to educate Mexican-Americans about nutrition assistance? Because Latinos have disproportionately high hunger rates.

Of course, attacks on food stamps are nothing new — Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget slashed the food assistance program, for instance. Ironically, Boteach noted, “the entire 10 year cost of the Ryan budget cuts to SNAP could be avoided by closing the tax loophole that covers corporate meals and entertainment.”

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>