BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–More than two decades after Massachusetts cut off legal immigrants from popular safety net programs, a coalition of community groups and health care providers thinks the time is right to revive their access to the benefits.

The Feeding Our Neighbors Coalition launched a campaign urging lawmakers to make funding available in the fiscal 2024 state budget and to adopt standalone legislation (H 135 / S 76) that would once again make thousands of immigrants with legal status eligible for food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and cash benefits through the Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) program. It would not be a brand-new expansion, but instead a return to how Massachusetts once ran the programs, supporters said.

In 1997, a year after Congress barred legally present immigrants from accessing food and cash assistance benefits as part of a welfare reform law, the Legislature intervened and made SNAP and TAFDC available to those people in Massachusetts using state funding. That eligibility ended in 2002.

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute Senior Benefits Policy Advocate Pat Baker said thousands of immigrants in Massachusetts need additional support to get by, particularly amid an influx of new arrivals that has strained the state’s emergency shelter system, but remain unable to access benefits available to other Bay Staters.

“Now we are seeing more newcomers coming in who have legal status and cannot get basic food, cannot get basic cash assistance — victims of violence, DREAMers, individuals who are pending political asylum, granted humanitarian parole at the border,” Baker said at a briefing on Tuesday. “Congress has extended some exceptions to immigrants from certain countries such as Haiti, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iraq, but many of our newcomers with legal status cannot access benefits.”

Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat first elected in 1990, played a role in the Legislature’s 1997 action to make benefits available and is now pushing for similar action more than two decades later.

As Cabral told advocates Tuesday, then-Speaker Tom Finneran initially opposed using state dollars to make the aid programs available to immigrants with legal status, but became convinced and wound up debating in its favor on the House floor. “That’s why the conversation is important. The conversation is about educating the folks we need to educate,” Cabral said. “It’s a fight worth fighting. It’s about helping people that need help, and we are a state that usually steps up to the plate to provide services for all those who reside here, live here, work here.”

Coalition members estimate that restoring nutrition aid and cash assistance benefits for legally present immigrants who qualify based on their income would cost the state about $18 million in fiscal year 2024. That money could provide an average of $180 per month in SNAP benefits to between 8,000 and 12,000 immigrants, plus an average of $300 per month in TAFDC cash benefits to about 1,000 to 1,500 immigrant families, supporters said.

“Today, with the price of food skyrocketing and the cost-of-living challenging family budgets, the emergency food network, including food pantries, such as La Colaborativa’s, are running out of food,” La Colaborativa Executive Director Gladys Vega wrote in a letter to legislative leaders as part of the campaign. “Nor can we meet all the food needs of our constituents.”

In addition to MLRI and La Colaborativa, other members of the coalition pressing for eligibility reform include Mass General Brigham, Boston Children’s Hospital, SEIU Local 509, the Greater Boston Food Bank and Roxbury Community College.

Cabral told advocates on Tuesday that he’s hopeful about the effort’s outlook in the House, recalling that Speaker Ron Mariano had been an ally of the original effort when he was a lower-ranking representative. “We had a group letter we did back then, and he signed that group letter as well, so I’m sure he is receptive to the conversation,” Cabral said at the briefing. “We’re going to start that conversation with him as well. It’s important for his support. We’re going to say, ‘Here’s a copy of the letter. You probably don’t have it in your archives.'”

Mariano led last session’s efforts to pass and uphold a new law opening up driver’s license eligibility to people regardless of their immigration status, and signaled interest this year in doing more “to make the Commonwealth a more welcoming place for immigrants from all over the world.”