Panel Vacates Injunction Against Public Charge Immigration Rule

Hundreds of people overflow onto the sidewalk in a line outside a U.S. immigration office in San Francisco in January 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — At odds with a slew of other federal courts, a Fourth Circuit panel ruled 2-1 Wednesday in favor of a Trump administration policy that makes it harder for immigrants to receive green cards if they rely on public benefits programs like food stamps.

The ruling from the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court does not, however, influence an injunction issued last week by a federal judge in New York barring enforcement of the so-called public charge rule. The judge found there is ample evidence that the rule deters immigrants from seeking Covid-19 tests and treatment.

On Tuesday, the Second Circuit backed the injunction but limited its scope to New York, Connecticut and Vermont rather than nationwide. The Manhattan-based appeals court found the government’s justification for the rule is “unmoored from the nuanced views of Congress.” 

But on Wednesday, the Fourth Circuit added to the tangled web of legal battles over the rule by siding with the Trump administration and reversing a nationwide injunction issued by a federal judge in Maryland.

The lead plaintiff in the Maryland case, CASA de Maryland, an immigrant rights organization representing over 100,000 people, sued President Donald Trump and Department of Homeland Security officials last September.

The group claimed the rule was ambiguous since it hinged on defining people as “primarily dependent on the federal government for subsistence,” violating the Fifth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses as well as the Administrative Procedure Act for faulty rulemaking.

After a challenge to its standing by Homeland Security in Maryland federal court, CASA de Maryland won out: U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm, a Barack Obama appointee, held that the group was forced “to divert resources that otherwise would have been expended to improve the lives of its members” to challenge the rule and found it was likely to succeed on the merits of its claims.

Once the district court issued a preliminary injunction on the rule, the government appealed to the Fourth Circuit and won a stay of the injunction in the meantime.

Writing for the appeals court’s majority Wednesday, U.S. Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said the lower court’s reasoning was mostly off base and founded on positions that would produce “virtually limitless” interpretation of injury that goes against the separation of powers. 

Pointing to the Fourth Circuit’s 2012 ruling in Lane v. Holder, Wilkinson noted how a gun rights organization lost its challenge to a federal firearm statute in that case. The group argued that it too was forced to divert resources from its usual advocacy efforts to court fights triggered by the new statute.

The district court’s position on standing is also “fundamentally at odds” with Supreme Court precedent in Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, the Fourth Circuit majority found. In that case, while the high court ultimately found that a fair housing advocacy group was forced to divert resources because of discrimination, the group did not lose its ability to function as a whole.

“Quite simply, nothing in the [public charge] rule impairs CASA’s ability to provide counseling, referral, or other services to immigrants,” Wilkinson wrote. “Of course, we respect the fact that CASA feels strongly that it must reallocate resources to best serve its members amidst a changing legal landscape and that it would prefer to operate in an environment where the rule does not exist. But untold numbers of organizations regularly voice dissatisfaction with public laws and actions that may affect their ordering of priorities in some way.”

The two individual plaintiffs in the case, Angel Aguiluz and Monica Camacho Perez, are DACA recipients and their ability to stay in the U.S. legally hinges on the enforcement of the rule itself.

But Wilkinson wrote that “public charge” has never been clearly defined by Congress and when it is used in the context of the Immigration and Nationality Act, it “expressly entrusts the decision of who is a public charge to the Department of Homeland Security Secretary.”

“Giving ‘public charge’ its ordinary meaning brings that provision into line with this surrounding program and its stated goal that ‘aliens within the nation’s borders not depend on public resources to meet their needs,’” the 71-page majority ruling states. “Adopting plaintiffs’ proposed definition, on the other hand, would give the public charge provision a notably more limited scope, distinct from similar provisions in related laws. We do not see anything in the text of these statutes to indicate that Congress understood the public charge provision to be such a circumscribed outlier.”

Fully acknowledging the majority’s position might be controversial, Wilkinson wrote the judges’ position was not based on the “wisdom of the rule but its legality.”

The Immigration and Nationality Act is clear on public charge and there shouldn’t be a different reading, the majority held.  

“To hold otherwise is a serious error in statutory interpretation. More fundamentally, though, it is also a broadside against separation of powers and the role of Article III courts,” the ruling states.

Wilkinson was joined in the majority by U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer, a George H. W. Bush appointee.

In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Bruce King, appointed by Bill Clinton, called the rule a narrowing of rights afforded in the existing immigration system.

King also described the majority’s opinion as an attempt to minimize injuries to CASA and the individual plaintiffs.

“At the end of the day, DHS contends that it has an overriding interest in immediately implementing its preferred policy and that such an interest tips the balance of equities and the public interest in its favor. Although the majority dutifully accepts that contention, I do not,” King wrote.

The judge added: “If immediate implementation of a preferred policy were sufficient to tilt the balance of equities and public interest in favor of DHS, every plaintiff seeking a preliminary injunction against governmental action would be on a fool’s errand. Accordingly, the harm CASA will suffer absent a preliminary injunction far outweighs any interest DHS may have in immediately implementing its preferred policy. The majority errs in concluding otherwise.”

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