Federal judge blocks use of public charge rule against immigrants
People line up at a food distribution site in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which has a large immigrant population hit hard by the coronavirus, July 10. | David Goldman/AP

In a new setback to the Trump administration’s assault on immigrants, a U.S. district court judge in New York has issued injunctions barring the administration from using its “public charge” rule to deny green cards to immigrants thought likely to use such public benefits as Medicaid, food stamps or housing vouchers.

Judge George Daniels of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on July 29 issued two orders.

One temporary injunction bars the Department of Homeland Security from implementing, applying and enforcing the public charge rule nationwide as long as a declared national emergency exists relating to COVID-19.

The other, a preliminary injunction barring the State Department from applying parallel public charge rules to applicants for visas at U.S. embassies and consulates, contains no reference to the pandemic, and is the first time the State Department policy has been fully addressed.

Noting in his ruling that the world “is in the throes of a devastating pandemic” which to date has affected some 16.6 million people worldwide and caused over 650,000 deaths, Judge Daniels said, “Attempting to effectively combat this plague has immediately come in conflict with the federal government’s new ‘public charge’ policy which is intended to discourage immigrants from utilizing government benefits and penalizes them for receipt of financial and medical assistance.”

Immigrant rights attorneys had argued that the COVID-19 pandemic made the public charge rule lethal to immigrant communities because it greatly discouraged the use of health care and other public benefits.

The two injunctions mark the latest step in immigrant rights advocates’ struggle against Trump administration efforts to broaden a longstanding policy of denying admission to the U.S., or lawful permanent residence, to those seen as likely to become dependent on the government for their main support, or to become a “public charge.” Before, only use of Supplemental Social Security (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or similar programs, or government-funded institutional long-term care, were considered a public charge.

Refugees, asylees, survivors of domestic violence and some other protected groups aren’t subject to the new public charge rules, nor do they apply to green card holders applying for U.S. citizenship. But immigrant rights and public health advocates have expressed concern that programs targeted in the new public charge regulations, and other public benefits programs, are being used less by immigrants generally.

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said that in issuing the orders, “the court rightly recognized that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take care of everyone in our country, and that Trump’s public charge regulation was not just cruel but also dangerous to the health and well-being of our nation.”

Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, added, “Scaring millions away from health care is dangerous during the best of times, and during a pandemic, it’s disastrous. By ensuring that everyone can access care without fear,” she said, the ruling “protects America’s immigrant families and improves our nation’s response to the COVID-19 threat.”

The two lead Protecting Immigrant Families, a coalition of hundreds of legal, immigrant rights, faith-based, public health, racial justice and community organizations.

Hincapié pledged that the coalition will “continue our work to ensure that everyone – regardless of their race or birthplace – has access to the testing, health care and economic relief they need. We will only get through this crisis if we come together and take care of everyone in our communities.”

The Trump administration’s public charge policy, formally proposed in October 2018, received well over a quarter-million comments during the two month period that followed, with a large majority opposing the new regulations.

The Department of Homeland Security announced the final rule in mid-August 2019, and a spate of lawsuits followed, starting with actions by two California counties – San Francisco and Santa Clara, with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra following soon after.

Further legal actions included a suit by Washington state Attorney General Robert Ferguson on behalf of 13 states, and an October 2019 decision by the Southern District of New York to block the rules.

Among the many health, education and social service organizations opposing public charge was the American Academy of Pediatrics. In August 2019 the Academy called on the Trump administration to “reverse” the rule because it “will not only carry serious consequences for the children and families impacted, but also our country; we must support the health of all children if we are to reach our full potential as a nation.”

In January of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court gave public charge the go-ahead. The Homeland Security Department started enforcement in late February.

Then came COVID-19.

Now, it is anticipated that the Trump administration will try to overturn the new injunctions.

After the new injunctions were announced, Javier Valdéz, executive director of Make the Road New York, one of the organizations contesting the rules, said public charge has had a devastating  effect on “families scared to seek out health care and basic forms of assistance from food pantries and even their children’s schools.”

Susan Welber, staff attorney in the Civil Law Reform Unit at The Legal Aid Society, called the court’s actions “a great victory for our plaintiffs and immigrant communities which have been disproportionately affected by the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic.” She noted that immigrants, and especially those working hard to combat the spread of the virus, need access to life-saving essential services so they can both fight the pandemic and protect their families without fearing immigration consequences.

“We hope the court’s decisions send a clear message to the government to withdraw these unlawful, racist and anti-family rules, and that if they don’t, we will continue to fight them in court.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for the People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.

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