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Hunger and U.S. Immigrants

Immigrants face high poverty rates

September 2010

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

– Leviticus 19:33-34

Bread members advocate for changes in policies, programs, and conditions that allow hunger to persist. One of our new areas of focus is immigration—whether it’s hunger that forces people to leave their home countries or hunger and poverty that immigrants face once in the United States.

Although there is a large coalition of organizations with deep experience working on immigration reform, the connections between immigration and poverty and hunger have been largely unexplored compared with the legalistic aspects of immigration. That’s where Bread fits in.

Every immigrant has a personal story, but the cause of most illegal immigration to the United States is poverty and lack of economic opportunity. For example, almost half (47 percent) of Mexicans live in poverty and 18 percent live in extreme poverty, unable to meet their basic food needs. Mexico accounted for 60 percent of the nation’s illegal immigrants in 2009.

Poverty and hunger are even more widespread in Central America. In Guatemala, 50 percent of children are malnourished—the sixth worst ranking in the world. Given their high rates of poverty and their proximity to the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean are the source of an estimated 81 percent of all illegal immigration.

Once in the United States, immigrants typically improve their economic status through hard work in jobs in agriculture, food production, and the service sector.

Illegal immigrants are critical to harvesting the country’s fruit and vegetables, working in meat-processing plants, and supporting the dairy industry. But that doesn’t prevent them from suffering some of the nation’s highest hunger and poverty rates.

Although national statistics are scarce, regional studies show that food insecurity surpasses 50 percent in some rural immigrant communities (compared to the U.S. national rate of 16 percent). A 2006 study in North Carolina found that 73 percent of the immigrant Latinos surveyed said they “worried whether our food would run out before we got money to buy more.”

Illegal immigrants and their children also suffer from high rates of poverty. More than one in five (21 percent) of all illegal immigrants live in poverty, and one-third of the children of illegal immigrants—most of whom are citizens—are impoverished.

Better understanding of how immigrants in the United States can contribute to poverty reduction in their home communities and also grow economically in this country will be a key component of building support for an economically rational and humane immigration system. As the foundation of its work on immigration policy reform, Bread is producing a variety of educational resources on immigration, with a focus on the poverty and hunger that are the main causes of illegal immigration.

For more information, please see www.bread.org/institute/research/immigration.

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