Judge Tosses Bulk of Challenge to Immigrant Welfare Restrictions

A pediatrician hands a newborn to her mother after a 2019 examination. 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 (CN) — A federal judge in Northern California ruled largely in favor of the Trump administration on Monday regarding a rule that could render immigrants ineligible for green cards if they apply for welfare benefits.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton’s decision addresses a multistate lawsuit challenging the Department of Homeland Security’s public charge rule, which allows the government to give greater weight to a green card applicant’s dependence on public benefit programs like SNAP, Medicaid and housing subsidies. Enacted this past October, the 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 city and county of San Francisco, Santa Clara County, the states of California, Oregon, Maine, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia claimed the rule was not only a cruel deterrent to immigrants applying for aid, but sowed fear and confusion among those who had already begun disenrolling from Medicaid and forgoing public benefits even when the rule does not apply to them.

“The negative public health repercussions of reduced access to health care, housing and proper nutrition will ultimately be paid for by plaintiffs,” their lawsuit said.

Hamilton agreed the cost of health care would fall on the states, as uninsured immigrants would likely be forced to seek care at emergency rooms.

“Yet even so,” the Bill Clinton appointee wrote, “plaintiffs have not demonstrated that the rule requires or prevents the states from undertaking a particular course of action. Instead, the rule impacts the choices of individuals who may or may not be under the rule’s purview. The opposition even refers to the “particularly hard choices” faced by those subject to the rule. Those individuals may be dissuaded or chilled from participating in benefit programs, but the actions of such third parties do not frustrate the availability of the benefits in the first instance. The states remain free to offer benefits.”

Hamilton initially blocked the rule from being enforced in those locales. In December 2019, the Ninth Circuit stayed Hamilton’s injunction, keeping the rule in effect.

Last week, a federal judge in New York issued a nationwide freeze on the rule for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Notwithstanding her colleague’s temporary injunction, Hamilton said she would still review the plaintiffs’ challenge as the rule had been in place since February.

In her 43-page decision Monday, Hamilton also found the rule does not run afoul of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits government agencies from discriminating against people with disabilities by denying them benefits. 

“While there may be a higher correlation between Medicaid enrollment and having a disability, it does not follow that the disability is the sole reason an individual is determined to be a public charge,” she wrote, adding that the Immigration and Nationality Act requires the Department of Homeland Security is required by Congress “to consider an alien’s health as part of the public charge determination.”

Hamilton also dismissed the coalition’s equal protection claims, finding its disparate impact on minority groups “notable” but not proof that the rule was motivated by a discriminatory purpose. She likewise nixed evidence of then-candidate Donald Trump’s statements calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “people who have a lot of problems,” as well as the president’s reported preference for immigrants from places like Norway. She noted that the presidents’ comments were not connected to the rule, writing that plaintiffs “have not alleged sufficient factual matter concerning statements by decisionmakers.” 

Hamilton further found the lawsuit’s allegations that White House adviser Stephen Miller “reportedly maintained a ‘singular obsession’ with the rule,” causing it to be fast-tracked to completion, not dispositive of discriminatory intent.

She said the rule’s road to enactment was not a departure from normal rule-making procedure and that at most, plaintiffs “plausibly allege that defendants wanted to implement the rule sooner rather than later.”

The California Attorney General declined to comment on the record. Neither the San Francisco City Attorney nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to emails seeking comment.

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