Anxious to prove that he is fighting a war on terrorists and not on immigrants, US President George Bush has proposed to allow poor immigrants who have lived legally in the US for at least five years to collect food stamps.

Since the attacks of 11 September, the government has detained over 1,100 “non-citizens”, immigrants who are not yet citizens, for questioning, and the enforcement of immigration laws has been stepped up. Most immigrants have found themselves gradually excluded from a variety of welfare benefits since the mid-1990s, when Republicans in the Clinton administration began tightening the rules. Eager to balance the federal budget, about 800,000 immigrants were removed from food stamp rolls in August 1996.

This new proposal will however restore part of the social safety net, and make life considerably easier for immigrants.

A senior administration official, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Washington Post: “We believe this will go a long way to meeting the needs of a number of children and adults who need additional benefits.

“It will allow them to have access to nutritious food and will […] improve their well-being.”

The White House revealed that the proposals would directly help around 363,000 people every month buy groceries, at the cost of US$2.1bn over the course of the next ten years. The official said that it could not say at this particular time how the money will be raised.

In October, 18.4 million people were receiving food stamps, which are available to people with gross incomes up to 30% above the designated poverty level. A three-person household, for example, can qualify for the stamps if its gross monthly income is not above US$1,585.

The anti-hunger group Food Research and Action Center has welcomed the plan. President James D. Weill told the New York Times: “It’s really positive that the administration wants to extend food stamp benefits to this group of legal immigrants.

“Everybody is moving in the same direction, and we are delighted to see that.”

More sceptically, however, the proposal has been seen as part of an effort to appeal to minority voters, and contribute to the president’s re-election efforts for 2004. Many of those who are likely to benefit from the food stamp proposal are Hispanic and last year the president’s senior political adviser, Karl Rove, commented that capturing a larger share of the Hispanic vote was “our mission and our goal”.

The Republican Party is split on the issue, however, with some Republicans insistent that a restrictionist immigration policy is essential. Nevertheless, many political observers believe that Bush’s plan, which is to be included in the budget due to be sent to Congress early next month, has a good chance of becoming law.