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Legal Immigrants Sue State for Food Stamps

SEATTLE (CN) - Washington killed food stamps for legal immigrants but not for U.S. citizens, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, a class action claims in Federal Court. The state killed its Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants, effective Feb. 1, to save $7 million.

But "Saving money is not adequate justification to discriminate against plaintiff and class members in violation of the Equal Protection Clause," says lead plaintiff Monica Navarro Pimentel.

Navarro says she can't supply an "adequate and nutritious diet" for her family without food stamps.

"Plaintiff Navarro Pimentel is indigent. At the time this dispute arose, plaintiff Navarro Pimentel and her household were receiving $647 in Basic Food benefits each month," according to the complaint. "This included $341 each month in federal Basic Food benefits and $306 each month in state-funded Basic Food benefits through the Food Assistance Program based on the Department's determination that she (1) was a Washington State resident; (2) met the immigrant eligibility requirements under WAC 388-424-0025; and (3) met the eligibility rules for the federally-funded Basic Food program, except for those rules related to alien status. Ms. Navarro Pimentel relies upon her federal and state-funded Basic Food benefits to purchase a nutritious diet.

"On January 18, 2011, DSHS [Department of Social and Health Services] sent notice to plaintiff Navarro Pimentel and approximately 10,350 Basic Food households who were receiving state-funded Basic Food benefits through the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants (FAP) authorized by RCW 74.08A.120 and WAC 388-400-0045. These notices stated that the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants was ending January 31, 2011 because of state budget cuts. It also stated that recipients did not have administrative hearing rights when a program ends.

"These notices listed the members of the assistance unit or household who according to DSHS had been receiving FAP benefits and set forth the amount of monthly Basic Food benefits that the household would receive when these benefits terminated on January 31, 2011 because of the elimination of the state-funded Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants.

"These notices failed to adequately explain why ineligible household members did not meet the citizenship or alien status requirements for federal Basic Food benefits set forth in WAC 388-424-0020 or indicate what information or verification the Department relied upon in reaching this determination.

"These notices also failed to adequately show how the Department prorated any ineligible member's income or allowable expenses in accordance with WAC 388-450-0140 or otherwise adequately set forth the income, deduction, and expense figures used by the Department so that Plaintiff and subclass members could review the computation of their federal, Basic Food benefits.

"These notices also failed to set forth all the rules that the Department relied upon in reducing or terminating Plaintiff's and subclass members' Basic Food benefits."

In 1996, Congress terminated the eligibility of most legal immigrants for food stamps but granted states the authority to provide benefits. Washington started a food assistance program for legal immigrants in 1997 using state funds.

"On January 12, 2011, DSHS headquarters notified its regional administrators that the Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants was being eliminated effective January 31, 2011 as a result of budget reductions. It informed them that change or termination letters would go to more than 10,350 Basic Food households who had members who would no longer be eligible for these benefits and set forth the reason code text that would be included in these letters. The letter also indicated that households would not have administrative hearing rights to contest the elimination of FAP," the complaint state.

The defendant is Secretary of Social and Health Services Susan Dreyfus. The class wants to enjoin the termination or reduction of the Basic Food benefits until they are given adequate notice and wants DSHS to restore any benefits that were unlawfully withheld before service of adequate notice.

The class is represented by Gregory Provenzano with Columbia Legal Services of Olympia.

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