The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Wednesday ruled [opinion, PDF] that the state of Washington did not violate the constitutional rights of certain legal immigrants when it discontinued their food stamp benefits to save approximately $7 million in state funds. In reversing an injunction [text] by the US District Court for the Western District of Washington [official website], the Ninth Circuit upheld budget cuts responsible for eliminating the benefits provided by the state program Basic Food [official website], asserting that "States constitutionally can do precisely what Washington did here: provide supplemental benefits when the state's coffers bulge, but eliminate them when the state's resources diminish." Plaintiff Monica Pimentel, a legal immigrant and mother of three, argued that the state's decision to terminate the food assistance program violated the Equal Protection Clause [Cornell University backgrounder] of the Fourteenth Amendment [text], but to no avail. In rejecting the argument, the court reasoned that Washington denied Pimentel "benefits that it did not and still does not grant to citizens and other aliens." Rather, distinguished the court, those citizens and other aliens receive help from a program that lies "firmly in the hands of the federal government," and federal benefits have no bearing on how a state chooses to distribute the funds it receives.
Washington terminated the Basic Food program in February 2011 due to budget constraints, effectively cancelling state benefits for more than 10,000 households. Qualified citizens and non-citizens, however, continued to receive federal food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) [official website]. Though the federal program has always provided assistance for both citizens and non-citizens, the federal government in 1996 cut benefits for non-citizens and required that they meet a number of additional prerequisites to qualify for aid, including a five-year residence requirement. In response, Washington compensated by providing state food benefits to legal immigrants who no longer qualified under SNAP. Originally enacted as the Food Stamp Act [text, PDF], Washington has participated in the program by distributing federal benefits to citizens and non-citizen residents since its inception in 1964.