Limited Block of Trump Plan to Deny Green Cards for Food Stamp Use Upheld

Hundreds of people overflow onto the sidewalk in a line snaking around the block outside a U.S. immigration office with numerous courtrooms in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Wednesday barred enforcement of a Trump administration rule aimed at deterring immigrants from using welfare but limited the ruling to California, Oregon, the District of Columbia, Maine and Pennsylvania.

The panel ruled 2-1 that the so-called “public charge” rule — which makes it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards if they rely on public benefits like food stamps or housing vouchers — is arbitrary, capricious and harmful. 

The rule issued by the Department of Homeland Security in 2019 brought a flood of legal challenges from New York to California. Oregon, the District of Columbia, Maine and Pennsylvania joined California’s lawsuit, along with the Santa Clara County and the city and county of San Francisco.

State and local officials, as well as immigration advocates, claimed Homeland Security failed to consider that discouraging immigrants from participating in federal assistance would drive up health care and public assistance costs for states and municipalities. 

They also argued the rule sowed fear and confusion among those who had already begun disenrolling from Medicaid and forgoing supplemental public benefits even when the rule does not apply to them.

The lawsuits were quickly followed by rulings enjoining the rule from taking effect. Federal judges in New York and Washington state issued nationwide injunctions, and most recently a federal judge in Chicago found in favor of immigrant rights groups challenging the rule in Cook County, Illinois.

This past August, the Ninth Circuit took up the government’s appeal of U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton’s limited injunction from October 2019, as well as a nationwide injunction issued in Washington state by U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson.

In her majority opinion, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Mary M. Schroeder said the new rule changed the meaning of “public charge” from longtime guidance defining it as someone dependent on government assistance for their survival through either cash payments or confinement in some public institution.  

“The guidance actually encouraged noncitizens to receive supplemental benefits in order to improve their standard of living and to promote the general health and welfare. The guidance drew a sharp distinction between the receipt of such supplemental benefits and dependence on the government for subsistence income that would render the individual a ‘public charge,’” she wrote. “The 2019 Public Charge Rule we review in this case effectively reversed that policy by making receipt of supplemental benefits the very definition of a public charge.”

Schroeder, a Jimmy Carter appointee, said that up until 2019, “the concept has never encompassed persons likely to make short-term use of in-kind benefits that are neither intended nor sufficient to provide basic sustenance.” 

She noted that the rule also unprecedentedly directs immigration officials to consider English proficiency when making a green card determination, “despite the common American experience of children learning English in the public schools and teaching their elders in our urban immigrant communities.”

Joined by U.S. Circuit Judge William Fletcher, a Bill Clinton appointee, Schroeder found the states and municipalities have established that they would be harmed by the rule.

“There is also no question that an increased demand for aid supplied by the state and local entities would be such an injury,” Schroeder wrote, adding, “The rule itself further acknowledges that disenrollment will cause other indirect financial harm to state and local entities by increasing the demand for uncompensated indigent care. Declarations in the record show that such entities are already experiencing disenrollment as a result of the rule.”

But the panel declined to apply a nationwide injunction. In vacating Peterson’s broad block of the rule, Schroeder wrote, “This is because the impact of the rule would fall upon all districts at the same time, and the same issues regarding its validity have been and are being litigated in multiple federal district and circuit courts.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra celebrated the ruling in an emailed statement. 

“We applaud today’s decision blocking the Trump administration from enforcing its immoral public charge rule while we make our case in court,” he said. “As we continue to face an unprecedented economic and public health crisis, forcing hardworking families to choose between basic necessities and maintaining their immigration status is inhumane.”

U.S. Circuit Judge Lawrence VanDyke, a Donald Trump appointee, issued a one-paragraph dissent saying he agreed with the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning when it reversed an injunction by a federal judge in Maryland, and with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — then a Seventh Circuit judge — when she dissented from a majority opinion blocking the rule in Illinois.

In parenthesis, VanDyke said Barrett’s dissent was “particularly notable for its erudition.”

“Contrary to popular perception, the force of the rule does not fall on immigrants who have received benefits in the past,” Barrett wrote this past June. “Rather, it falls on nonimmigrant visa holders who, if granted a green card, would become eligible for benefits in the future.”

“To see why,” Barrett continued, “one must be clear-eyed about the fact that federal law is not particularly generous about extending public assistance to noncitizens.”

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