Federal Judge Issues Nationwide Ban on Immigration Welfare Rule Amid Pandemic

Hundreds of people overflow onto the sidewalk outside a U.S. immigration office in San Francisco last year. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

(CN) — A federal judge in New York issued a nationwide injunction Wednesday barring enforcement of a Trump administration rule that prevents immigrants from qualifying for green cards or other visas if they are likely to become dependent on government benefits.

Wednesday’s order was the second time U.S. District Judge George Daniels issued an injunction preventing enforcement of so-called “public charge” rule. Daniels’ first injunction was stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 27, and the rule became effective in February.

However, the Supreme Court, in a subsequent two-line order issued in April denying plaintiffs’ motion to reconsider the January stay, left the door open to a new filing in the district court. And on Wednesday, Judge Daniels said a new injunction is necessary in light of changed circumstances.

“Much has significantly changed since January 27,” Daniels wrote. “Today, the world is in the throes of a devastating pandemic, triggered by the novel coronavirus SARS-Co V-2. In six months, approximately 16.5 million people around the globe have been afflicted by the disease caused by this virus. 

“That disease (COVID-19) has claimed over 650,000 lives worldwide. In the United States alone, Covid-19 has spread rapidly, infecting over four million people. Close to 150,000 American residents have died. All of these staggering numbers continue to climb on a daily basis.”

The lawsuit against the Trump administration was brought by the State of New York; City of New York; State of Connecticut; and the State of Vermont. 

Named as defendants are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and former acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Acting Director Kenneth Cuccinelli II; and the United States.

That lawsuit was consolidated by the district Court with a second complaint filed against the DHS and CIS filed by Make the Road New York, African Services Committee, Asian American Federation, Catholic Charities Community Services and Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

A spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a statement to Courthouse News that “USCIS is currently reviewing the court’s decision. USCIS will fully comply with the court’s order and will be providing additional guidance.”

In March, President Donald Trump declared a state of national emergency, but Judge Daniels said the “public charge” rule is in conflict with efforts to combat the coronavirus because the rule is intended to discourage immigrants from seeking government benefits and penalizes them for receiving financial and medical assistance.

Daniels said the plaintiffs provided ample evidence that the rule deters immigrants from seeking Covid-19 tests and treatment, which impedes efforts of the state and city plaintiffs to slow the spread of the disease. 

“Doctors and other medical personnel, state and local officials, and staff at nonprofit organizations have all witnessed immigrants refusing to enroll in Medicaid or other publicly funded health coverage, or forgoing testing and treatment for COVID-19, out of fear that accepting such insurance or care will increase their risk of being labeled a ‘public charge’,” he wrote.

The defendants issued an “alert” excluding Covid-19 medical treatments from falling under the definition of a public charge under the rule, but Daniels said the alert falls short in a number of respects, including the fact that the nation is experiencing an economic downturn. 

“Accordingly, many immigrants and citizens alike, who otherwise would not be classified as public charges under any reasonable definition, are experiencing substantial financial burdens as employers slash jobs, benefits, and pay,” he wrote.

“Defendants’ interest in effectuating the rule fails to measure up to the gravity of this global pandemic that continues to threaten the lives and economic well-being of America’s residents,” he added. “No person should hesitate to seek medical care, nor should they endure punishment or penalty if they seek temporary financial aid as a result of the pandemic’s impact.”

The judge said the injunction should apply nationwide because of the government’s interest in uniformity of immigration and national health policy.

“Limited relief would simply not protect the interests of all stakeholders,” he wrote. “A geographically restricted injunction, in particular, would undoubtedly result in inconsistent applications of the rule, and different public charge determinations based solely on location. The effect of the rule’s application should not depend on what side of the George Washington bridge between New York and New Jersey one fortuitously finds oneself.”

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