A federal judge on Monday ordered the Trump administration to vacate a policy that allowed officials to deny green cards to immigrants who might need public assistance, such as food stamps and housing vouchers, saying it exceeded the authority of the executive branch.
In a 14-page ruling, Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois cited “numerous unexplained flaws” that made the rule “arbitrary and capricious,” including an interpretation of self-sufficiency that had no basis in the statute it purportedly interpreted, and the failure to consider the “predictable collateral consequences” of its implementation.
The policy, known as the public charge rule, was announced in September 2018 and effectively created a wealth test for immigrants seeking permanent residency by rendering inadmissible applicants deemed likely to use a broad range of safety net programs. In addition to reaching beyond the power of the executive branch, Judge Feinerman wrote, the rule ran afoul of the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs how regulations are developed and rolled out.
The Trump administration is expected to appeal the decision, and the case could end up before the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose officers adjudicate green cards, cannot apply the new standard in reviewing applications. The agency’s spokesman, Dan Hetlage, said the agency would fully comply with the decision and issue additional forthcoming guidance after reviewing it.
Advocates who had feared that the policy would harm tens of thousands of poor people, particularly those affected by widespread job loss because of the coronavirus pandemic, hailed the court decision.
The fear and confusion the policy created “led to decreased participation in public programs and placed a heavy burden on local governments and community-based organizations to replace them,” said Militza M. Pagán, a staff lawyer at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law who represented the plaintiffs.
Cook County and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights filed a lawsuit in September 2019 challenging the legality of the public charge rule. Along with several other federal courts across the country that enjoined the rule, Judge Feinerman blocked it the following month, a day before the rule was to take effect.
But the Supreme Court set aside the injunctions and allowed the rule to go into effect in February, until a final ruling on the merits.
The Trump administration first announced in September 2018 its intention to change the guidance on how to identify a potential “public charge,” a noncitizen dependent on the government for subsistence. In August 2019, the Department of Homeland Security published a final rule that amended the regulations.
The new rule stated that any applicant likely to use housing vouchers, food stamps and nonemergency Medicaid, among other public benefits, for certain amounts of time could be denied a green card. Administration officials said it was in the best interest of the United States to ensure that new, legal immigrants were self-sufficient.
The measure was also intended to deter public benefits from luring people to seek residency in the United States, they said, and to help contain the government’s budget deficit.
The public charge rule fulfilled one of President Trump’s priorities — to bolster the legal immigration of well-to-do people. More green cards would go to immigrants who were educated, and fewer would be granted merely because someone has a family member in the United States, the foundation for the current system.
Though the idea of public charges is a longstanding principle of U.S. immigration law, it historically was applied to those deemed likely to primarily depend on the federal government for survival, such as through public cash assistance or institutionalized long-term care.
“Congress never intended that you be denied a green card if you ever touch a food stamp, which is what the Trump administration has tried to do by dramatically expanding the meaning of public charge,” said Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company in Seattle that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.
A study released last month by Health Affairs, a health policy journal, found that nearly 79,000 children have withdrawn from Medicaid insurance in five states — California, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and Washington, representing 29 percent of all U.S. children — since the rule was announced. Based on that finding, researchers for Health Affairs estimated that 260,000 children nationwide have been removed by their parents from nutrition and health care programs as a result of the new rule.
In his ruling, Judge Feinerman cited an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that found that Mr. Trump’s interpretation of the public charge statute did “violence to the English language and the statutory context.”
That appellate court also determined the Department of Homeland Security did not have “unfettered discretion” to redefine public charge, despite “the ambiguity in the public-charge provision.”
“We find that the interpretation reflected in the rule falls outside the boundaries set by the statute,” it found in June.
On Monday, Judge Feinerman vacated the rule based on two grounds while allowing plaintiffs to continue pursuing a third claim, namely that the rule was discriminatory under the equal protection clause because it was rooted in animus against nonwhite immigrants.
The Department of Homeland Security argued that the rule should only be vacated in Illinois, but the court said that the government itself had conceded it had violated the Administrative Procedure Act and that the rule must be set aside in its entirety when that occurs.
“By the A.P.A.’s plain terms, an agency rule found unlawful in whole is not set aside just for certain plaintiffs or geographic areas; rather, the rule shall be set aside, period,” wrote Judge Feinerman, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was recently confirmed to the Supreme Court, was on the three-judge panel of the appellate court that upheld the preliminary injunction. She wrote the dissenting opinion and is likely to recuse herself if the case goes before the Supreme Court.