Appeals Courts Split on Whether Trump Administration Can Enforce 'Public Charge’ Rule

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A federal appeals court says the rule penalizing immigrants for using public assistance programs can’t be enforced in three northeast states. But another court found the administration can move forward with its new standards.

One federal appeals court this week sided with the Trump administration on its rule that makes it more difficult for immigrants to obtain legal status in the United States if they used public benefits. 

But a different decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also released this week, upheld a lower court order that stops the rule from taking effect in New York, Connecticut and Vermont. The 4th Circuit, which hears cases from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, overturned a nationwide injunction issued by a lower court and found the Department of Homeland Security rule “plainly permissible.”

The Trump administration’s “public charge” rule, which was finalized earlier this year, expands the type of public benefits that could be counted against an immigrant seeking a green card or visa, as well as establishing new income thresholds used to evaluate applicants.

Under the rule, immigration officials will consider an immigrant’s use or potential use of benefits programs—including Medicaid, housing assistance or food stamps—when deciding whether or not to issue a green card.

A “public charge” is defined as any noncitizen who receives one or more public benefits for more than 12 months within a three-year period. Officials will weigh these factors, along with other considerations like a person’s age, health, financial assets, English proficiency, and education when deciding on whether an immigrant can become a permanent resident. An income of less than 125% of the federal poverty level, or $31,375 for a family of four, would be counted negatively against an applicant.

In the 4th Circuit case, the immigrant advocacy group, Casa de Maryland, and two people who immigrated to the United States as children and received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status filed suit against DHS.

Despite the split rulings, the enforcement of the rule remains on hold after a separate federal judge issued an injunction July 29 that blocks DHS from enforcement “for any period during which there is a declared national health emergency in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.”

In a 2-1 decision, the court found that Casa de Maryland did not have standing to bring the case and sided against the two DACA recipients, who said they had forgone applying for student loans out of fear that it would render them public charges and harm their legal status.

The court found that the administration was within its rights to alter the definition of “public charge” because Congress had delegated the authority.

“To whatever extent the federal courts are empowered to review how the executive discharges this duty, the separation of powers demands careful deference from the judiciary and intervention, if at all, only in truly exceptional situations. This is not one of them,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in a 71-page opinion.

Neither DHS nor Casa de Maryland responded to requests for comment about the ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court initially weighed in on the policy as the lawsuits proceeded, allowing it to take effect in January and in April rejecting an emergency request from several states to halt its enforcement amid the coronavirus outbreak. But a split between circuit courts makes it likely the high court will have to revisit the issue.

In the 2nd Circuit case, New York, Connecticut and Vermont filed a lawsuit challenging the rule and argued that state governments would be harmed because residents would forgo use of public benefits programs, “thereby decreasing federal transfer payments to the states, reducing Medicaid revenue, increasing overall healthcare costs, and causing general economic harm.”

The court agreed the states had standing and upheld a prior preliminary injunction issued in the case, but found that a nationwide injunction that prevented the Trump administration from implementing the rule was too broad. The court narrowed the scope of the injunction so that it only applies to the three states involved in the case.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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