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State may nix food aid for Spokane’s Marshallese

OLYMPIA – For 15 years, Washington has helped thousands of people the federal government wouldn’t, providing food assistance to legal immigrants struggling to survive in America.

That includes residents of the Marshall Islands who come to this country seeking jobs and medical care after the U.S. military used their nation as a nuclear test zone.

“We trashed their homeland, and they’re here trying to work,” Linda Stone, of the Children’s Alliance, said.

However, food aid for the Marshallese and other legal immigrants could end as the state struggles to close its budget gap.

When Congress and President Clinton reformed welfare in 1996, among the services it ended was food stamps for most immigrants. The next year, the Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke developed State Food Assistance, a program to continue similar aid to immigrants in Washington.

The program has about 14,700 qualified recipients statewide, but actually serves about 31,000 people when family living arrangements of recipients are considered, the Children’s Alliance estimates. Under current budget projections, it will cost the state $13.9 million through June 30, 2013.

But State Food Assistance is on the chopping block as the state struggles to balance its budget. Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed eliminating SFA for the last two years. Last year, the Legislature cut payments in half, and that reduction recently was upheld by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. While most legislative Democrats support keeping what’s left of the program, the latest budget proposal from Senate Republicans and the three Democrats that form a working majority in that chamber cuts that $13.8 million for State Food Assistance as part of the $665 million in program cuts.

Statewide, legal Mexican immigrants with green cards are the largest group in the program. But in Spokane County, where about 1,270 immigrants receive food assistance, about two-thirds are Marshall Islanders. Another 110 are Russian or Ukranian immigrants and 86 are Micronesian.

Over the years, the federal government has relaxed some of its restrictions on assistance to immigrants. Under current law, a legal immigrant with a green card can receive food aid after five years, as can some refugees and people seeking asylum. But the Marshall Islanders are caught in a quirk of immigration law and don’t qualify.

A 1986 agreement between the United States and the Republic of Marshall Islands, an effort to repay islanders for contaminating their land with nuclear tests, allows the Marshallese to enter this country under a special “legal non-immigrant” status. They can come and go with relative ease and don’t need a green card to work. They’re not refugees.

They come for work, education and medical treatment, particularly for cancer care, Stone said. Even after five years, they don’t qualify for aid.

“They’re in limbo land,” she said.

On Wednesday morning, Marshallese residents from the Olympia area joined a group urging the Legislature to spare State Food Assistance and other programs from further budget cuts. In the evening, members of Spokane’s Marshallese community, which some estimate is as large as 3,000, gathered to discuss the budget cuts and prepare their own messages for legislators.