- Associated Press - Sunday, January 10, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Federal officials have told Sedgwick County it could lose federal grant money for its health department if it insists on asking health clinic clients about their immigration or citizenship status.

The Sedgwick County Commission in October asked the state to block illegal immigrants from the federal Women, Infants and Children nutritional program, but there is no eligibility requirement based on immigration status, The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/1nbqgY1 ) reported.

Commissioners also asked county staff that month to create a form asking all people who use the county health department about their immigration or citizenship status. Supporters said the intent was to collect data to learn who the department serves - not to deny services to anyone.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said in an email obtained by The Eagle that asking those questions could put federal grant money in jeopardy.

“The county should not be asking WIC clients about their citizenship status because it has no bearing on WIC eligibility,” Jeanette Montano, a regional WIC official for the Food and Nutrition Service, wrote in an email to state WIC director David Thomason. “If they ask for additional information from WIC clients, in any form, they would be out of compliance . and subject to legal action.”

Pregnant women and new mothers are eligible for WIC, which provides checks for such items as milk, eggs, cereal, cheese and baby formula, based on residency and income.

Commissioner Jim Howell said the USDA was making assumptions about the motives and consequences of using the form.

“When we take federal money on these types of programs, it limits our ability to do commonsense things,” Howell said. “It’s unfortunate the federal government would try to control us with threats of defunding.”

The county’s inquiry could violate the Civil Rights Restoration Act and open the county to legal action that could cost it federal money, said Evelyn McGregor, regional civil rights director for the Food and Nutrition Service.

A draft of a questionnaire county commissioners had hoped to have ready by Jan. 1 was included in a letter county counselor Eric Yost sent to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in December.

The top of the letter says information obtained from the questions would be used to assess the needs of the community, and that recipients aren’t required to answer them.

Commissioners Tim Norton and Dave Unruh oppose using the form.

“Our job is to appropriately manage the grants and resources we have to keep our community healthy,” Unruh said. “Our role is not to try to be the Border Patrol.”

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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