Judge Eyes Tailored Block of Plan to Deny Green Cards for Using Public Benefits

Dr. Jasmine Saavedra, left, a pediatrician at Esperanza Health Centers in Chicago, hands newborn Alondra Marquez to her mother, Esthela Nuñez, right, after examination on Aug. 13, 2019. Doctors and public health experts warn of poor health outcomes and rising costs they say will come from sweeping changes that would deny green cards to many immigrants who use Medicaid, as well as food stamps and other forms of public assistance. (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky)

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge seemed inclined to block a Trump administration rule that would effectively discourage immigrants from using public benefits, but said Wednesday she has reservations about issuing a nationwide preliminary injunction.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton told attorneys for California, San Francisco, Santa Clara County and numerous immigrants’ rights groups at a hearing Wednesday that they had not “provided a satisfactory basis” for a nationwide injunction, pointing to a recent Ninth Circuit decision that curtailed U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar’s twice-issued order halting the Trump administration’s asylum policy.

She also chided the plaintiffs for only devoting two paragraphs to the need for a nationwide injunction in their briefs.

“It seems to me you’ve just thrown this in glibly, saying ‘Yes we want a nationwide injunction’ without telling me why you want this. I expected many pages with multiple citations. It has to be explained why a nationwide remedy is needed,” Hamilton said. “What difference would it make if this didn’t pertain to other states?”

The plaintiffs sued in August over a new Department of Homeland Security rule that allows the government to give greater weight to a green card applicant’s dependence on public benefit programs like SNAP, Medicaid and housing subsidies.

They say a “public charge” has historically been defined as someone “primarily dependent” on welfare to meet their basic needs. But now the federal government wants to extend that definition to cover anyone who used public assistance for 12 months within a 36-month period.

The “public charge” rule also expands the factors considered in visa and green card applications to include family size, credit score, and even past applications for public assistance.

The coalition accuses the federal government of sowing fear and confusion among immigrants, many of whom have already begun disenrolling from Medicaid and forgoing public benefits even when the rule does not apply to them.

They also claim the loss of federal Medicaid dollars will hurt local governments, and that fewer people seeking vaccines and other preventative care will harm public health.

“The chilling effect is virtually a certainty,” said San Francisco Deputy City Attorney Matthew Goldberg. “We’re already seeing a significant decline in enrollment.”

“What is your best evidence for these harms?” Hamilton asked.

Goldberg said San Francisco stands to lose at least $7.5 million in one year estimated the loss for Santa Clara County at $4.6 million. He said local agencies have also spent 1,100 hours “dealing with the ramifications of this rule,” and that while public health is harder to quantify, “we have a proprietary interest in maintaining health in our communities.”

He added, “When individuals disenroll from food stamps, they turn to local food pantries we are currently funding and there will be increased costs.”

Arguing for the Trump administration, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ethan Davis said this was not the fault of the public charge rule.

“Many of the harms they’re talking about are things they choose to do in response to the rule. They are not things the rule requires states and localities to do. They may choose to spend more money on food pantries and the like but that’s not a required consequence of the rule.”

He also said the harms listed by the counties and state were “speculative.”

In departing from decades of legal precedent on what constitutes a “public charge,” Santa Clara County Counsel Raphael Rajendra said the feds had simply claimed the rule would improve public health and safety while waiving away the hundreds of thousands of comments in opposition.

But Judge Hamilton said responding to public comments “is not a particularly demanding responsibility,” adding the government should at least “display an awareness and good showing of reasons for a departure” from past policy.

Davis said while the government’s response was “extraordinarily thorough,” it was difficult for the department to predict what may happen in the future since it would require reliance on “people making the unwarranted decision to disenroll from public benefits.”

Hamilton asked: “But doesn’t the law require the government n to consider that, even if you believe it’s unwarranted to disenroll?

Davis said, “Some people may mistakenly dis-enroll,” but added that in considering this, the feds believed the possibility was not outweighed by the government’s interest.

“The government has an interest that aliens not depend on public benefits to meet their needs and that the availability of public benefits not incentivize immigration,” he said.

He also said the department made changes in consideration of the more than 263,000 public comments it received – exempting Medicaid benefits for pregnant women and people under age 21 from the rule.

Hamilton didn’t seem to buy the argument that the government would suffer any kind of hardship should the rule be temporarily halted while the cases move through the court system.  She also asked plaintiffs for more briefing on their enumerated harms.

The judge ordered both sides to meet and submit a proposal on the scope of an injunction. For instance, it could cover just California and a handful of other states that have joined in California’s challenge, like Pennsylvania, Maine, and Oregon.

Hamilton must rule by Oct. 15, when the rule is scheduled to take effect.

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