Illinois Federal Judge Vacates Public-Charge Immigration Rule

Hundreds of people line up outside a U.S. immigration office in San Francisco last year. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

CHICAGO (CN) — A federal judge in Chicago once again blocked enforcement of a Trump administration policy that makes it harder for immigrants to get green cards if they rely on public benefits like food stamps or housing vouchers.

Monday’s decision from U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman marks the second time the Barack Obama appointee has nixed what is commonly known as the public-charge rule since Cook County, Illinois, first sued the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service along with a local immigrant rights group in September of last year.

The county claimed the public-charge rule is a discriminatory, arbitrary policy that overburdens county services by causing immigrants fearing deportation to forgo critical services like emergency medical care.

Feinerman agreed with Cook County and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, or ICIRR, and issued a preliminary injunction stopping enforcement of the rule on Oct. 14, 2019, just one day before it was set to take effect.

The judge denied the government a stay pending its appeal of his decision but the U.S. Supreme Court in February overruled, 5-4, and stayed the injunction pending the outcome of the federal government’s appeal.

In June, a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit temporarily barred the government from enforcing the rule adopted under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which would allow the government to deny visas and green cards to immigrants deemed likely to depend on welfare benefits such as food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid.

The panel concluded that “Cook County adequately established its right to bring its claim” and that “the district court did not abuse its discretion by granting preliminary injunctive relief.”

Feinerman’s decision on Monday vacates the public-charge rule in its entirety across the country, grants summary judgment to Cook County and allows the ICIRR’s equal protection claim against the government to proceed.

The judge mentioned early in his 14-page decision that the government itself conceded the rule is defective under the Administrative Procedures Act, or APA, and that the plaintiffs should be granted judgment on those claims.

Nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security requested Feinerman only vacate the rule in Illinois, but the judge found it must be tossed completely.

“By the APA’s plain terms…an agency rule found unlawful in whole is not ‘set aside’ just for certain plaintiffs or geographic areas; rather, the rule ‘shall’ be ‘set aside,’ period,” Feinerman wrote.

Although the federal government argued the nation’s upper courts have criticized district courts issuing the kind of nationwide injunctions they claim Feinerman issued, the judge countered Monday that he is only vacating the rule exactly as the APA requires, which is “a less drastic remedy” than a more extraordinary preliminary injunction.

The ICIRR’s equal protection claim can move forward, Feinerman said, because the claim “concerns whether the rule is motivated by the impermissible discriminatory purpose of favoring white immigrants over nonwhite immigrants,” which does not factually overlap with the lawsuit’s claims under the APA.

The Department of Homeland Security could not be immediately reached for comment on the district court decision Monday.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx applauded Feinerman’s decision as a “victory for immigrant families” in a statement released Monday afternoon and took the opportunity to blast the president for attempting to “instill policies that penalize diversity.”

Foxx criticized the Trump administration’s “attempt to shortchange immigrants by changing public charge threatens our public health and destroys communities that have immigrant populations who make these places across America great.”

The state’s attorney acknowledged Monday that “we fully expect an appeal,” but made clear that her office and immigrant rights advocates “stand ready to defend our victory.”

Although the ICIRR also could not be reached by phone for comment Monday, the group tweeted that the ruling is a “MAJOR VICTORY!!!” in that the court found the public-charge rule is unlawful and should not be implemented in Illinois or the rest of the country.

“The fight is not over and we will continue fighting in court and getting out the vote!” the group’s tweet said.

Nicole Hallett, associate law professor and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago, was not entirely surprised by Monday’s development considering the previous Seventh Circuit decision but felt “the big news is that the court struck down the rule nationwide and not just in Illinois.”

Hallett offered that a potential appeal by the government to the U.S. Supreme Court could be complicated by the fact that recently confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett was on the Seventh Circuit panel that blocked the public-charge rule in June.

“The typical practice would be to recuse” given the circumstances, Hallett said in an interview, which could result in a split 4-4 decision from the high court, so “it depends on what the remaining eight justices on the case do with it.”

Barrett, originally appointed to the Seventh Circuit by Trump in 2017, issued the sole dissent in June’s decision, in which she said the plaintiffs were too broadly interpreting who would be affected by the public-charge rule, that the rule was not too harsh and that the plaintiffs were just trying to use the courts to undo what they consider objectionable policy.

Hallett also pointed out that “this could all get mooted out if the election goes to [Joe] Biden.”

The professor explained that even if the Supreme Court were to decide that the public-charge rule was lawfully enacted and not arbitrary or capricious, that would not prevent a future administration from changing the rule again.

Should he become president, Biden should expect to have his feet held to the fire over this rule “because it has such a large effect on so many people,” Hallett said.

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