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Court says immigrant food-stamp cuts constitutional

By Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - Washington state did not violate the constitutional rights of legal immigrants when it discontinued their food stamp benefits, a federal appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld state budget cuts that eliminated food assistance benefits for certain legal immigrants, reversing a lower court that had blocked the money-saving measure.

"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," the three-judge panel wrote.

Washington had participated in the federal government's food stamp program since its inception in 1964, distributing federal benefits to citizens and non-citizen residents alike.

In 1996, the federal government dramatically scaled back the benefits for non-citizens, requiring them to meet a host of prerequisites, including a five-year residence requirement. In response, the state of Washington decided to fill the gap, providing state food benefits to legal immigrants who no longer qualified under the federal welfare program.

Facing budget reductions, Washington terminated its food assistance program in February 2011, stripping over 10,000 households of state benefits. Qualified citizens and non-citizens continued to receive federal food stamp benefits.

Monica Pimentel, a legal immigrant and mother of three, sued in 2011 to block the new cuts, accusing the state of violating the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. As a victim of domestic violence, Pimentel was entitled to be in America, but did not meet requirements for federal food assistance.

The district court judge Marsha Pechman agreed with Pimentel, blocking the cuts. But the 9th Circuit panel overturned the lower court.

(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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