SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Ninth Circuit on Thursday stayed two injunctions against a Trump administration rule that makes it easier to deny immigrants green cards based on their use of public benefits, but the rule will remain on hold due to nationwide injunctions issued in two other states.
A three-judge Ninth Circuit panel granted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's request to stay injunctions issued by federal judges in Richland, Washington and Oakland, California.
Writing for the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee, a George W. Bush appointee, said the Trump administration was likely to prevail on appeal because the rule that makes reliance on public benefits a weightier factor in green card decisions was a "reasonable interpretation" of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
"The preliminary injunctions will force DHS to grant status to those not legally entitled to it," Bybee wrote. "DHS has satisfied its burden to show irreparable harm to the government absent a stay of the injunctions."
Though the law instructs government officials to consider if an immigrant will be a public charge in green card decisions, the government has historically only considered cash benefits in that formula. The rule introduced in August 2019 and set to take effect on Oct. 15 was designed to expand the definition of "public charge" to include reliance on non-cash benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid and Section 8 housing assistance.
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.
Opponents argue the rule will sow 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.
Nine states, the District of Columbia, San Francisco and Santa Clara County filed lawsuits in California and Washington state to block the new rule in August.
U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland found the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm without an injunction because states and local governments would lose Medicaid funding and incur greater costs "answering questions about the rule, processing disenrollment, analyzing the impact of the rule on their services and undertaking community education and outreach."
U.S. District Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson in Richland, Washington, found the rule could inflict long-lasting harm on the states. Forgoing public assistance could lead to “chronic hunger and housing insecurity in childhood,” which can result in “disorders and other negative effects later in life that are likely to impose significant expenses on state funds.”
In a 79-page opinion, Bybee rejected those findings, concluding the rule does not directly impose those costs on states and local governments. Rather, harms related to disenrollment from public programs would result from the "free choice of aliens who wish to avoid any negative repercussions for their immigration status," Bybee wrote.
Bybee concluded that DHS would suffer greater harm because it would be forced to "grant status to those not legally entitled to it."
Despite the three-judge panel's decision, the rule will remain on hold because judges in New York and Maryland issued separate nationwide injunctions in October. Those injunctions are outside the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction.
In a separate, concurring opinion, Bybee tried to emphasize that although many observers think the courts make political decisions on contentious issues like immigration, his only loyalty is to the law.
"No one should mistake our judgments for our policy preferences," Bybee wrote.
The circuit judge also took aim at Congress for failing to pass any legislation in recent years to address serious and perplexing immigration issues, instead leaving it the courts to resolve such disputes.
"It matters not to me as a judge whether Congress embraces or disapproves of the administration’s actions, but it is time for a feckless Congress to come to the table and grapple with these issues," Bybee wrote. "Don’t leave the table and expect us to clean up."
Circuit Judges Sandra Ikuta and John Owens joined Bybee on the panel. Ikuta was appointed by George W. Bush. Owens was appointed by Barrack Obama.
States who sued to block the rule within the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction include California, Maine, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois and Massachusetts.
Despite the legal setback, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement he would continue to fight the Trump administration's "cynical attempts to rip essential health, nutrition, and housing programs away from hardworking families."
San Francisco City Attorney's Office spokesman John Cote said the city was disappointed with the Ninth Circuit's decision but added that "the fight isn’t over yet."
"The Trump administration is waging a campaign of fear against hard-working immigrants and their families," Cote said. "This rule would hurt public health, the economy and our country. It’s both cruel and illegal. We won’t stop until it is permanently blocked.”
The Departments of Justice and Homeland Security did not immediately return email requests for comment Thursday evening.
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